Daggett County jail escape spotlights
a bigger problem: Failure of our penal system
By Jen Beasley
October 17, 2007 | In the aftermath of the recent escape
of convicted murders Danny Martin Gallegos and Juan
Carlos Diaz-Arevalo from the Daggett County Jail, corporal
punishment has made a remarkable comeback. State corrections
brass have been mercilessly flogged, whipped, and shamed
in the stocks of public opinion.
The charges: Two counts of failure to adequately supervise
dirty-rotten-criminal-bad-guy-low-lifes, and dozens
of counts of irresponsibly leasing cell space from mercenarious
and inept county jail contractors to the extreme detriment
of public safety.
Oh, the horror! The injustice! The satisfying thwack
of a thrown tomato!
Oh, the incredible failure to see the big picture.
Though the caper's ensuing clamor has succeeded in
drawing the public's attention to the unpleasant subject
of prison organization, these criticisms of Utah's prisons
grossly miss the point. They are na´ve, Johnny-come-lately,
distracted observances of fresh cracks that have arisen
in the already shattered rubble of a system that has
lain broken on society's doorstep practically since
The real problem isn't the lack of supervision, but
the overcrowding that creates a lack of supervision.
The real problem isn't the leasing of cell blocks, but
the recidivism that causes the overcrowding that forces
the state to lease the cell blocks. The real problem
isn't that inmates get sent back to prison, but that
prison did nothing for them the first time.
If sending criminals to prison accomplishes nothing
the first time, what's the point? And where are the
properly aimed flying foodstuffs?
According to Department of Justice statistics, 67
percent of inmates released from prison in 1992 had
re-offended by 2002. Really, it's little wonder. Doing
time is just that: being told exactly what to do in
every respect for days that become weeks that morph
into years. What to eat, when to sleep, when to go outside,
what to wear. Eventually, prisoners' minds become so
numbed--such Pavlovian houndbrains--that they are able
to act only when a bell is rung ordering them to. There
is no thinking in prison. Thinking is not required.
Thinking is discouraged.
The prisoner becomes institutionalized.
A 1996 Austrian study published in Forensic Science
International found that inmates incarcerated for
long terms experienced "significant" deterioration of
cognitive abilities such as memory and concentration
while doing their time.
Translation: we're making them worse.
Instead of removing people who have committed crimes
from society to mold them into better people, we capture
prisoners only to let them mold. And once sufficient
atrophy has occurred in the brain of an inmate, only
then do we release them on parole into a world where
practical decisions bombard them at every turn.
No wonder they make bad ones. No wonder 67 percent
of them fail.
It doesn't have to be this way. Prisons don't have
to be set up as waiting rooms where those who most need
training about how to function in society are instead
set to whistle and thumb through Sports Illustrated
until their name is called and they are released back
into society unchanged. Regardless of their offenses,
forgers, addicts, rapists, tax evaders--and yes, even
murderers--have functioning brains.
We could harness them. We could shape them. We could
improve them. Every ounce of planning required for Diaz-Arevalo
and Gallegos to make their escape could instead have
instead been invested in something of use to society.
Take Colorado Correctional Industries as an example
of good behavior in this department. A subsection of
the Colorado Correctional System, CCI employs inmates
in a variety of jobs that range from raising livestock
to building office furniture to arranging flower bouquets.
A challenge issued to design a better bear-proof garbage
can led to one inmate designing something ingenious
enough to be implemented, manufactured, and sold to
Colorado State Parks. The Durango Herald reported
that in testing, the can endured 90 minutes of interrogation
by three grizzly bears without cracking under the pressure.
Just think: a "bad guy" had a good idea.
Such programs not only produce benefits in the form
of goods that can be sold cheaply to state and private
enterprise, but they also generate revenue. CCI earned
$38 million in 2006. Utah's version of CCI, Utah Correctional
Industries, generated $17 million in 2006 with embroidery,
printing, construction and data entry programs, among
others. Since each inmate in Utah costs approximately
$23,000 per year to incarcerate, doesn't it make sense
to put them to work?
No taxpayer money goes toward funding the UCI, but
the UCI still generates money. Inmates earn small wages--generally
not more than a dollar an hour--and learn skills make
them more employable upon release. And according to
the May 2007 CCI Connections Newsletter, inmates who
participate in the work programs are 50 percent more
likely to stay out of prison once released. It's reasonable
to believe that similar results are coming from Utah's
Unfortunately, the UCI is not very big. There are
only about 750 jobs, and inmates have to earn them.
But with the horrific failure of the national prison
system as the alternative, surely there is sufficient
evidence to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that
expanding the opportunities for inmate work would make
a more effective prison system. At this rate, anything
would be a more effective prison system.
So which sounds better? Fifty percent more likely
to stay out of jail, or 67 percent likely to return?
Meanwhile another way to better inmates, the Utah
State University education program that allowed prisoners
to earn their degrees in prison, was cancelled in August.
USU couldn't afford it anymore. The program was $600,000
in debt. The Legislature did nothing.
It's too bad. Over a 20-year period, 91 inmates received
bachelor's degrees through the program, and according
to program administrator Kathleen Robinson, none of
the graduates were known to have returned to prison.
Since we're discussing education, let's solve a small
story problem. Take 91 college-educated inmates and
multiply them by the $23,000 each it would have cost
for Utah taxpayers to re-incarcerate them. Now save
that money by not re-incarcerating them. You get a fistful
of just over $2 million. Yet somehow, the Legislature
was unable to find $600,000 to give to USU to keep the
program going, but will happily fork over the same amount
to ineffectively jail the next 26 inmates that come
And statistically, some of those guys will probably
be return visitors. Not a good investment by any standards.
Justice-mongers will be quick to point out that inmates
should not be "rewarded" for their crimes with education.
They must be punished for their perpetrations. They
must be made to suffer for their crimes. Giving them
skills would be luxurious. Making them smarter would
be an affront to their victims. Don't give them books,
throw the book at them! It is better to lock them up
and forget about them, for they are a pestilence on
society. The consequences can be dealt with later. They're
bad people, so we'll just have to re-incarcerate them
when they re-offend.
And the wheel of justice makes another creaking revolution.
It's just the kind of circular logic that gives the
revolving door momentum.