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Realizing the Cost of Prison: A Conversation with Thurman Perry

The overall imprisonment rate in 2022 stood at 355 per 100,000 Americans in 2022. However, the U.S. imprisons about 1,826 Black men per 100,000 residents. Source:

The U.S. is the most incarcerating nation in the world, according to a January report by Statistica research. This nation shamefully boasts a carceral population of 1.8 million people, representing more than 20% of the world's prison population. Our incarceration rate reflects about 716 prisoners for every 100,000 people. 


Criminal justice reform has gained significant traction over the last few decades, as have beneficial policies for more understanding the financial, social, cultural, and community implications of incarceration. To delve deeper into the topic of cost, BGX sat down with Gabrielle Perry, founder and executive director of Louisiana-based Thurman Perry Foundation. Perry’s organization addresses the needs of women and girls hit by the criminal legal system by providing scholarship money, rent assistance, and feminine hygiene products, among other services.

BGX: What is the financial burden of prison in countries with high incarceration rates?


Perry: Countries with high incarceration rates, such as the United States, frequently face significant financial costs associated with sustaining big prison populations. The cost includes building, operations expenses, inmate healthcare, and staffing. For example, in the United States, the annual cost per person incarcerated can surpass tens of thousands of dollars, contingent on the state and level of security needed.



BGX: How does this compare to countries with more rehabilitative prison systems?


Perry: Countries that place emphasis on restoration over retribution have lower incarceration rates. As a result, jail expenses are lower. Nordic countries, such as Norway and Sweden, are frequently mentioned as outstanding instances. In these countries, the (focus) is on equipping individuals with education, vocational training, and mental health support to facilitate their effective reintegration into society after liberation. While the initial investment in such programs may be costlier, the long-term benefits, such as lower recidivism rates and more communal cohesion, outweigh the expenses.



BGX: What are some key factors contributing to the stark differences in cost between these two approaches?


Perry: The primary determinant is the underpinning concept that governs each country's approach to criminal justice. Punitive systems frequently prioritize incarceration and law enforcement over preventive and rehabilitative measures. Countries that prioritize restoration engage in initiatives to address core causes of crime, including poverty, lack of education, and substance misuse, within as well as outside the prison system.


BGX What are the challenges to transitioning from a punitive to a rehabilitative approach?


Perry: Shifting towards a restorative model (requires) a change in both policy and public perception. Skepticism about the effectiveness of rehabilitation, along with political pressure and worries about public safety, may interfere with progress. Furthermore, eliminating existing infrastructures built on retributive measures may face opposition from established stakeholders in the criminal legal system. Nevertheless, evidence from countries that have successfully implemented rehabilitative programs demonstrates the advantages of such a transition. We've tried it the traditional way for too long, and it's a moral failing of our society that we haven't taken the steps to try a promising alternative.


BGX: What lessons can countries with high incarceration rates learn from those with more rehabilitative systems?


Perry: One key lesson is the importance of investing in human capital over punitive measures. By prioritizing education, job training, and mental health services, countries can address the underlying factors contributing to criminal behavior, ultimately reducing reliance on incarceration. Moreover, fostering a culture of rehabilitation and reintegration, rather than stigmatization and punishment, can promote a more equitable and just society. The cost of prisons extends far beyond financial expenditures, encompassing social, economic, and moral dimensions.


C. Dreams is an advocate who writes and lectures about prison and criminal justice reform, LGBTQ rights, harm reduction, and government and cultural criticism.


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