Travels in a Prison System

The United States has its own way of getting tough on criminals and Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation details how. Wall Street Journal and Pulitzer winner Joseph Hallinan examines America’s love affair with its prison system and how the “prison boom” has created an industrial complex of its own. Hallinan spent four years traveling prisons and correctional facilities in the United States. In the 263-page book, he describes the horrendous situations inmates live with as well as his conversations with them, their jail wardens, and some government officials.

He begins his story with his trip to two Texas prisons. Here, keeping people locked up is “something like a religion” (Hallinan, 2001, p. 4). Texas incarcerates more people than almost any state in the country that it has constructed more than one hundred prisons since 1980. The prison system in Texas is so big it locks up one of every nine inmates in America. The “prison boom” in Texas applies with the rest of the United States. The prison system in the United States as a whole has grown tenfold in the past 30 years.

In short, the more than two million men and women behind bars could be considered one of the largest migrations in American history (Cass, 2001, par. 2). Hallinan laments that even at a time when gangsters like Al Capone reigned, only 137 out of every 100,000 Americans were thrown into jail. But since 1980, he says, the United States has broken the record and it has been setting a new record since. Today, almost 500 citizens per a hundred thousand are locked up behind bars. In Hallinan’s crisscrossing in jails, he refuted the myth often held by politicians and talk show hosts.

American prisons, he writes are no “country-clubs” (Seiler, 2002, par. 2). Instead, the author was short of describing the “correctional” facilities as hell. The overcrowding common to most American prisons has made it a conducive ground to breed gangs. Most prisons today accommodate at least twice as many inmates as it could actually handle. And as it is, the jam-packed crowd means less control and more violence. The ‘strong’ are mixed with the ‘weak’. Someone always ends up getting beaten up.

Other than the trend of overpopulation and congestion in prison systems, the book also devoted much space to discuss the difference between punishment and rehabilitation. Halinnan points out that in some American prisons, inmates are simply housed in jails to serve their sentences. Rehabilitation programs were scrapped. Even as some prisons still carry the title “correctional,” the trend in improving the well-being of inmates has been appalling. In some prison systems, libraries have been reduced. Education and schooling were also cut down, if not eliminated.

Work programs designed to prepare inmates for their release have been reduced and in some cases, cancelled (par. 8). The worsening condition of the American prison system should not only be of interest to inmates or their families, but to each and every American taxpayer, as well. Other than the hell inmates are forced into, the book also discussed in much length the fiscal implications that result from the stunning growth in the prison community. Taking advice from a senior reporter, Hallinan did “follow the money. ” Starting from the first chapter, Hallinan gave out the numbers.

He writes that in 1996 alone, Americans has shelled out some $24. 5 Billion or an average of $55 per inmate per day. The amount of taxes that go to the prison industry has gone unnoticed and unreported that today, it has become a $40-Billion industry that employs close to half a million workers. Hallinan writes that what most Americans do not know is that the United States has created “prison millionaires. ” As one prison executive he interviewed puts it, the prison industry is a growing business (Cass, 2001, par. 7).

There is so much money in the system that the budget for prisons in some states now equals or exceeds the budget appropriated to higher or university education. Take for example, New York City. Between 1988 and 1998, the state increased its budget for prisons by more than three-quarters of a billion dollars. At the same time, the state government reduced the spending for New York State and university colleges by almost the same amount (Markowitz, 2002, p. 121). In some communities, prisons have turned out to be more than just rehabilitation and correction buildings, they have become profit centers as well.

There are a lot of private companies that profit from the prison boom—from the fencing and barbed wire business to telephone companies. The growing number of correction officers and their unions also get a chunk of the prison budget. What Hallinan fears is that since the industry has become a money-making venture, lobbying for longer sentences is simply inevitable. Given the cash involved, giving in to such pressure is just inevitable. In summary, the book first published in 2001, is an honest account of the grim and politics present in the prison industry.

Hallinan suggests that there is so much more to cell overcrowding than what meets the eye. The purpose of rehabilitation is taking a back seat to money and American taxpayers are the ones taking the dirty cudgels. As Hallinan chose to conclude it in his book, “the level of violence and fear and degradation that permeates most prisons make a luxury of everything but survival” (p. 216).

References: Cass, J. (2001). Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation. San Jose Mercury News. Retrieved November 08, 2007, from http://www. labournet. net/events /0104/stircrazy. html. Hallinan, J.

(2001). Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation. New York: Random House, Inc. Markowitz, G. (2002). Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation. Journal of Public Health Policy. Vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 121-123. Retrieved November 8, 2007, from http://links. jstor. org/sici? sici=0197-5897(2002)23%3A1%3AGUTRTI%3E2. 0. CO53B2-L. Seiler, J. (2002). Book Review: Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation. The Freeman published by the Foundation for Economic Education. Retrieved November 8, 2007, from http://www. fee. org/publications/the-freeman/ Article. asp? aid=4265.