An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse: An Essay on Prison Reform from an Insider’s Perspective, book review

Book review by Stephen Healy and Peter Wagner of 'An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse: An Essay on Prison Reform from an Insider's Perspective' by Jens Soering.

by Peter Wagner and Stephen Healy, April 30, 2005

book cover
By Jens Soering
Lantern Books, 2004
113 pages, $12
reviewed by Stephen Healy and Peter Wagner

When Virginia lifer Jens Soering released his second book, An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse: An Essay On Prison Reform from an Insider’s Perspective he fired a warning shot across the bow of the prison industrial complex. An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse is the best short, readable, fact-drive summation of why prisons don’t work, but what makes the book so powerful is that it is written by a conservative Christian addressed to other fiscal conservatives.

Fiscal conservatives define “good government” as “small government”, so by using a simple cost-benefit analysis, Soering shows that locking up 2 million people fails to justify the $57 billion cost. While progressives may oppose the current criminal and penal systems for social and ethical reasons, Soering’s arguments have the potential to split the Republican party’s fiscally conservative base from its “get tough on crime” leadership.

Using fresh analysis and groundbreaking arguments to bring sometimes dry statistics to life, Soering’s book is organized around six myth-busting chapters:

  • There is no problem,
  • They may be expensive, but at least prisons prevent crime,
  • Crime prevention does not work,
  • Rehabilitation behind bars does not work,
  • There are no alternatives to prison, and
  • Criminal justice issues are so important that no one would dare mislead the public about them.

Soering, a German citizen serving two life terms, brings a unique perspective that allows him to challenge common ideologically derived assumptions from both the right and the left. Soering place the US prison in an international context to show precisely how US prison policy fails us. While all modern societies have a “crime” problem, the United States stands virtually alone in relying solely on expanding its punitive incarceration system to address the problem. Soering explains that the prison population has grown not because of a growth in crime, but because of a complete systemic failure to prevent people already in the system from re-offending. The majority of prisoners who are released either fail to successfully complete parole or are shortly returned to prison after committing a new crime. Judged by any standard used in the marketplace, “corrections” is an abysmal failure.

One good conservative solution? Fiscal incentives.

Reducing poverty has proven results in reducing crime, because people with something to lose are less likely to commit a crime. But reducing poverty has been anathema to neo-conservatives like Bush. “The poor do not deserve it, and we can not afford it anyway,” they say. But from a fiscal conservative perspective, it makes good economic sense to end poverty. After all, the poverty line in the U.S. for a family of three is $13.22 a day per person. That’s supposed to pay for everything. By contrast, incarceration costs on average, $55.18 a day. Soering asks whether reducing poverty would be both cheaper and more effective at reducing crime. And of course, in some places incarceration costs far more than the average. In the Fairfax County, Virginia, jail, incarceration costs $130.00 a day. That’s quite a decadent expenditure by society, particularly considering that a night’s stay in a Walt Disney World no-frills resort can be had for only $119.33.

In an age where conventional “liberals” have adopted the neo-liberal “welfare reform” program, it is ironic that one of the clearest defenders of the social safety net is a writer with an ideological tie to the people who opposed Johnson’s War on Poverty. But as Soering points out, spending on education and other social services for the poor — not mass incarceration — is more in line with fiscally conservative social principles because social services do lower criminality and its associated costs. This is simply that the stitch in time saves nine.

Beyond the title, drawn from that of a white paper issued in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher’s conservative English government, the book contains very little moralizing about “bad” people. That title will no doubt make some progressives wince, but it’s also a reflection of the genius of the book. It’s a fact of reality that conservatives believe some people are “good” and some are “bad”. While progressives might not agree with the fiscal conservatives about why crime exists, we can certainly agree that that the $57billion a year spent on corrections isn’t improving public safety.

This isn’t a radical book that questions how we define crime or one that imagines a new world where prisons don’t exist. Instead, the book is a highly effective indictment of the prison industrial complex as a massive failed experiment whose time has come and gone.

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