In my experience, people understand that prisons are criminogenic, meaning they increase rather than decrease the likelihood that a person will find himself back in prison, either because of a new crime or a parole violation. But it seems people are less clear on why prisons have this effect. The authors of a recent report by the VERA Institute, for instance, speculated that prisons were criminogenic “because people learn criminal habits or develop criminal networks while incarcerated.” They seem to imagine prison as some kind of master class in criminality, with compulsory lectures on general mayhem and senior seminars on drug distribution and assault.
Not hardly. As a rule, guys inside do not wander around the yard announcing the crime that landed them behind bars and are even less likely to pose the question to someone else. I know people inside who have spent decades without telling or asking another soul what put them in prison.
I suspect the explanation for the criminogenic effect of incarceration is more straightforward. Prisons are criminogenic because scarcity demands illicit behavior and rewards violence. Allowing for inevitable variation among the thousands of prisons in the United States, a defining feature—if not the defining feature—of prison life is scarcity. Nearly everything valuable in a prison, from an adequate supply of nourishing food and access to quality medical care, to contact with family and loved ones, is exceedingly expensive and in dangerously short supply. And wherever essential goods are scarce and law is absent, people will come up with side hustles to make ends meet, and will fight to secure or defend their spoils.
The scarcity is deliberate. Take food, for instance. To say that prisons skimp on food would scarcely do the matter justice. According to a 2018 study on food in prison by Impact Justice, the average cost for food per prisoner per day in the United States is less than $4.00. Not per meal, per day. In some states, the number is substantially lower. Alabama, for instance, pays less than $2.00 on food per inmate per day. But this is not only a problem of the southern states; Wisconsin pays a whopping $1.02 a day to feed each inmate. And things are getting worse. Across the country, the amount spent to feed inmates has declined precipitously over the past 25 years. In 1996, Pennsylvania spent nearly $9 per day to feed a single prisoner. By 2018, the amount had fallen to $2.61.
This miserliness forces inmates with money in their account to rely on the prison commissary to supplement their diet. But the cost of commissary food is exorbitant and most prisoners do not have that sort of money, which means they either go hungry or come up with illicit workarounds. The most common is to steal food from the kitchen and sell it on the prison’s black market. One woman who worked in the prison kitchen told investigators that the going rate for a block of butter at her prison was $10. A man in another facility reported that kitchen staff would steal meat meant for prisoners, hide it in their pants, and sell it to famished inmates back on the tier. Inside no less than outside, hunger encourages criminality.
Those who do not work in the kitchen are forced to devise more ingenious strategies to augment their diet. A friend who spent a great deal of time in prison once described to me how he heated water with a device that would do Rube Goldberg proud. It included two razor blades, a stretch of wire sliced from a radio, and an electrical outlet. Because getting caught with this contraption meant getting time in solitary confinement (“the box”), some prisoners didn’t want to risk having one in their cell, which naturally raised the price that risk-taking prisoners can charge for soup. In prison, even hot water is hard to come by.
Medical care is another scarce commodity. Though the Constitution obligates the government to provide competent care for prisoners, most states charge prisoners a copay for every medical visit. These fees typically range from $2 to $5 per visit, which may not sound like much to those accustomed to wages on the outside, but a 2017 study by the Prison Policy Initiative found that inmates who work in the most common prison jobs such as laundry, food service, maintenance, and groundskeeping make on average between 14 and 63 cents an hour. And that’s before mandatory deductions for court-ordered fees, fines, or victim restitution, which can easily take half a prisoner’s pay.
That means a single medical visit could cost a prisoner more than a week’s wages. How many people on the outside would skip medical care if every trip to the doctor cost a week’s pay, especially if it meant skipping another essential item like food? Conditions are particularly egregious in some states. Texas, for instance, has the distinction of charging the highest copay—$13.55/visit—yet it is one of six states that does not pay inmates at all for the most common prison jobs (a dishonor it shares with Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina).
We know what happens when people can’t afford medical care. They self-medicate. So scarcity of care on the inside, just like on the outside, contributes to the market for drugs. In every prison in America, drugs are widely available. Generally speaking, drugs like marijuana and opioids, which ease pain by dulling the senses, are more popular than drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine, which intensify sensations and heighten awareness. In prison, most people don’t want their senses heightened.
Some people think drugs are brought in by family members, who slip them to their loved ones during visitation. That certainly happens, but I have always suspected—and my friends and clients inside have always told me—that most drugs are brought in by Correctional Officers and staff. A recent investigation in Texas confirmed my suspicion. During the height of the pandemic, the Texas Department of Corrections, like states across the country, suspended all family visits. Yet the drugs continued to flow. A friend in the Louisiana State Prison told me the same thing happened there.
In fact, inmates in Texas reported that drugs were even more widely available when family visitation was suspended than before, presumably because concerns about COVID-19 made it less likely that guards would be searched closely for contraband. In any case, once drugs are inside, they become just another form of currency that can be sold or bartered to help inmates overcome the effects of chronic scarcity. The same Texas investigation found that prisoners were trading drugs, which were plentiful, for food, which was not. A peanut butter sandwich cost half a joint. Drug dealing becomes another side hustle that people inside have to do in order to make ends meet.
For many people—inside and outside—nothing is more precious than contact with loved ones. But as others have often observed, in some prisons (and many jails) it costs a small fortune to make a 15-minute phone call, despite the evidence that maintaining close contact with family helps reduce recidivism. In fact, virtually every means by which an inmate might communicate with the outside world—from stamps, paper, pencils, and envelopes to email—are similarly dear. For many prisoners, a connection to the world beyond the walls is just another scarce commodity.
The list could go on—toiletries, tobacco, a picture frame—but the point has been made: Scarcity is omnipresent and all but compels participation in an illicit economy. But of course, many prisoners simply do not have the resources necessary to purchase goods on the black market. After all, how many prisoners can afford $10 for a block of butter? Yet scarcity weighs on poor prisoners as much as, if not more than, the (comparatively) wealthy. How do the poorest prisoners, who do not enjoy financial support from their family or have a connection to the prison drug trade, overcome scarcity?
The answer is simple: violence. On the outside, the solution to any scarcity is wealth. But on the inside, the ultimate solution to scarcity is the capacity and willingness to meet your needs by inflicting violence on another—that is, by using or credibly threatening to use force. The capacity for violence, precisely what society values least, is the trait that equips the most vulnerable prisoners to manage and mitigate the defining feature of their existence. Because of state-created scarcity, a prisoner’s best friend is what society values least.
Scarcity in prison is hardly a new phenomenon. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Attica prison uprising of 1971, the historian Heather Thompson noted that “everyone at Attica” needed to “run various cons to supplement his basic supplies.” But people have not paid sufficient attention to what this scarcity produces. It all but demands active participation in ongoing criminality and encourages prisoners to develop and refine the capacity for violence.
And then we wonder why prisons are criminogenic.