Politicians get a pass on prisons. We don't ask, and they don't tell. As long as they don't build prisons in our neighborhoods, politicians can do virtually whatever they want in this realm, and, trust me, they have. They've been building new prison space across the country like crazy for the last 20 years. We now have more than 2.2 million inmates, making us No. 1 in the world. Some 13.5 million people spend time in jail or prison during the course of a year. We use about $60 billion in public money annually to keep all this going, and we're not getting as much as we think we are in return.
Safer communities? You can logically conclude that the more criminals behind bars, the safer we all are. But it's not that simple. Under current conditions, most state and federal prisons do little more than warehouse criminals, leaving them ill-prepared for re-entry to free society. We jettisoned whatever was corrective about corrections years ago. What did we think - assuming we thought at all - was going to happen?
"Within three years, 67 percent of former prisoners will be rearrested and 52 percent will be re-incarcerated," said a bipartisan commission in a report to Congress on Thursday.
With that kind of recidivism rate, prisons are just temporary stops in a dreary cycle - crime, incarceration, unemployment, crime, incarceration. We tolerate this expensive failure, and the politicians responsible for it get a pass.
"If these were public schools or publicly traded corporations, we'd shut them down," Alexander Busansky, executive director of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons, told the Los Angeles Times as he presented his report to Congress.
A year has come and gone since I first started using this column space to address the drug dealers of Baltimore, asking them - and the people who buy their poison - to come off the street for help in finding work, housing, drug treatment, job training - whatever they needed to stop being such a drag on Baltimore, their hometown.
More than 1,400 people have called here for help, the vast majority of them with criminal records. Almost all did time in Maryland and federal prisons, and received almost nothing in the way of preparation for their return home.
Some managed to get a bit of vocational training at the Maryland prison complex in Hagerstown; some managed to get a high school-equivalency degree.
But the vast majority had nothing rehabilitative to mention when I asked how they spent their time in prison. Only a few had job leads as they emerged from pre-release. Many of them, no doubt, drift back to their old, bad habits and end up being burdens on society again.
We should not build any more prisons until we fix the ones we have.
There should be a national moratorium on prison construction, supported by a president and Congress dedicated to a better return on the public's investment. America needs a new effort at corrections - a nationally shared goal of actually reducing prison populations within the next decade.
The public's message to American politicians needs to be: Don't shelter and feed criminals and drug addicts if you have no intention of fixing their hearts and minds while they're inside the walls. Stop sending men and women back to the street uneducated, untrained, unchanged and clueless about what to do next.
In Maryland, all talk about building a new federal detention center in or near Baltimore - at an estimated cost of $68 million - should stop. The state should vacate Supermax, send the inmates there to the state prison in Western Maryland and sell Supermax to the U.S. Marshals Service to relieve problems in housing defendants awaiting federal trial.
No more new prisons in Maryland. Fix the ones we have.
There aren't many politicians with passion for this fight. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Republican governor, is one of the few who has tried to launch reforms that would bring more of a rehabilitative culture to Maryland prisons. But the alleged liberals in the Democratic legislature have stifled those efforts year after year (for no reason but that they could). As a result, the intensive counseling, education, drug treatment and job preparation that Ehrlich wanted to expand will remain just a limited offering.
Give Ehrlich credit for at least talking about this. Most politicians won't even do that. They figure we're not watching or that we don't care, that the public has a lock-'em-up-and-send-us-the-bill attitude about prisons.
They're wrong. Polls indicate that most Americans have figured this out by now - that prisons should be about punishing criminals and protecting the public, but also about changing men and women for the good of all.
People of all political persuasions accept that premise.
"For the vast majority of inmates, prison is a temporary, not a final, destination," said Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who serves as chairman of a Senate subcommittee on corrections and who was once described by The Washington Post as a darling of the religious right. "The experiences inmates have in prison - whether violent or redemptive - do not stay within prison walls, but spill over into the rest of society."
On the left, a group called Architects Designers Planners for Social Responsibility embraces a boycott on prison construction with this pledge: "I believe that too many people are being incarcerated and that our society must immediately develop and implement alternatives to incarceration. ... I pledge not to do any work that furthers the construction of prisons or jails."
It's time for some politicians to take that pledge.
To hear Dan Rodricks on the radio, tune in to WBAL (1090 AM) from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.