The Prison Index: Taking the Pulse of the Crime Control Industry is a joint project of the Prison Policy Initiative and Western Prison Project. We developed the Index as a response to twin frustrations. First, through our work we are confronted on an almost daily basis with the difficulties activists and policy makers face in trying to find current and accurate statistics that can inform their work. The Index is intended as a quick reference tool that can provide a broad range of data to inform the debate on criminal justice. Secondly, we see a lack of a widespread analysis in the media of the economic and social costs and benefits of the criminal justice system in the U.S. It is our hope that the information gathered in the Index will aid journalists in their search for background data.
The author's perspective in this publication is informed by the work of Nils Christie, particularly his groundbreaking book: Crime Control as Industry: Towards Gulags Western Style. Fighting crime has become a major industry that consumes public resources at a rate that is only rivaled historically by the Cold War and the fight against Communism. Unfortunately, the "who, what, where, why and how" of the American criminal justice system is often inadequately addressed in public forums. Given the high cost of the system, to both communities and taxpayers, we seek to broaden the knowledge base on these issues and encourage greater public examination of current policies.
In May 2001, Peter Wagner, frustrated with his own inability to keep track of newspaper clippings of prison statistics, created an online database of empirical research at prisonsucks.com. This website has made it easier to find research information and statistics on crime and punishment, but it does not summarize the data for quick reference. In conversations with activists at the Western Prison Project, it became apparent that most activists, journalists and policy makers lack the time and resources to thoroughly review the often lengthy research reports that are available. We identified a critical need for summary data that could both aid people in accessing quickly needed statistics, and provide source information for those who want to more thoroughly examine the research.
The intent of the Index is to condense both government statistics and the diverse research data available at prisonsucks.com into a readable publication that will serve as both a factual introduction to prisons and a resource tool for activists, journalists and policy makers. Readers can use this publication as a tool to educate the broader community on the massive shift of public resources into the crime control industry over the past two decades. We hope this leads to a broadening of the public debate on the increasing criminalization of broad segments of American society and the costly and unprecedented expansion of the use of incarceration in the U.S. As an additional way of disseminating information on these issues, we have written a series of factsheets, based on the Index, available free on our websites. We invite other organizations to submit to us their own, locally inspired factsheets for the purpose of sharing them with the wider activist community.
We hope the Index is a valuable resource that you find both helpful and informative.
Brigette Sarabi, Co-editor and
Peter Wagner, Author, Co-editor