JF Ptak Science Books Post 622 Blog Bookstore
The fossil record is generally one of the richest and most compelling histories of the development of life on earth, a far-reaching, cumulative record of extraordinary importance. There are the other, occasional, fossils that stand only by themselves, and seem to have almost no use in the current time, living almost entirely within themselves. The following statics seem to fall into that category—they seem to be only a tombstone for an era, providing nothing except to tell the story of what happened, existing only for that purpose, with no compelling utilization for anything outside understand a small piece of life for the year the stats were gathered.
The cause for this sentiment was found in a government publication called Expense of Convicts of the United States (Letter from the Comptroller of the Treasury…), 1 February 1859). The following comes in the first paragraph:
“I….report that 50 cents per months is allowed for rent of prison for each prisoner in all the States and Territories uniformly.”
What this means is that the U.S. Treasury would pay 50 cents to the state for keeping a federal prisoner. That is 50 cents per month, or about 1.7 cents per day. And that was also for rent of the cell, exclusive of all else, each state furnishing the government with the added cost, separately.
Evidently the only state in the country that prescribed an exact amount for keeping a federal prisoner in a state institution was Maryland, “which received 30 cents per day for all expenses, rent, board, medical attendance, clothing, bedding, fuel, and etc” (italics in the original). The rest of the states and territories had diverging and different expenses, from the southern district of New York at 25 cents a day for board, and ranging up to about 50 cents per day in Michigan. Vermont charged an extra 60 dollars a year, in addition to the 6 bucks that they would get for the rent of a Vermont cell, to keep a prisoner—all expenses included—for one year, or about 18 cents per day, total.
Unfortunately I don’t have the stats of how many federal prisoner there were in 1859, so I don’t know how much of a percentage of the budget was occupied by prison expenses. But what I do know is that even with tossing around the CPI with multiplier effects and so on the figures translate in no way to keeping a person in prison today. The cost of housing someone in prison per year is around $35,000 a year, or $100 or so a day. Adjusting the 1860 dollar via CPI for 2009 makes that dollar worth about 25 dollars today, which would be a doubling and a doubling again of keeping someone in prison.
I’m not so sure that those figures tell us much about what we pay, today.
Next, I was having a breeze through The Prison System of the United States by S.J. Barrows (Commissioner of Prisons for the U.S.) which was published in Washington in 1900. One particularly interesting section was the publication’s solitary statistical table, “Appendix A”, which detailed the crimes of the 625 men incarcerated in the state of Michigan in 1900. Well over half of all those in prison were there for larceny and burglary, while about 12% were in the big house for violent crimes. (Evidently 95% of this number were literate and 70% could “cipher” (that is, produce basic arithmetical skills)). The total crime list (such as it was) includes the following:
Capital crimes (murder in the first and second degree) and manslaughter, along with murderous assault comprised about 1% of the total prison population. Other violent crimes included assault with intent to do great bodily harm, rape, attempted rape, rape and assault composed another 3%. Further assaults were classified under (a) with intent to do great harm; and then as assault on a female under 14 years; and on a female under 16 years There were also the sexual assaults: taking indecent liberties with female; with male child; unlawful and carnal knowledge of a young child; inducing female to enter house of ill fame. These last two categories included about 5% of the prisoners. Set aside form these were the crimes of adultery, abduction, incest and sodomy, which included another 3%. So it seems that the violent offenders in prison in Michigan in 1900 totaled out at 12% or so.
Burglary and larceny were the largest categories, being subdivided into (a) burglary accompanied by actual assault; (b) larceny; (c) larceny from a dwelling; (d) larceny from a shop in daytime; (e) attempting larceny from the person; (f) entering a church in daytime to steal; (g) breaking and entering a store in daytime; (h) breaking and entering a store in nighttime;(I) breaking and entering a dwelling in daytime; (j) breaking and entering a dwelling; (k) breaking and entering a railroad car.
Then there were a few largely vacant offenses: Resisting an officer; Uttering and publishing
a forged note, breaking out of prison, perjury, arson, false pretense, and
malicious destruction of personal property, all combing for less than 2% of the
The vast majority of prisoners in Michigan were imprisoned for non-violent crimes. The federal fathers, in the meantime, recognized that people in prison shouldn’t be idle while paying their debts to society, and should fill their time with work that would occupy the prisoner and bring some income into the prison system:
“The moment we apply to the convict a different system of economics because he is in prison we go astray. When we subject to analysis the plans proposed for abolishing the competition of convict labor we find them based on false principles or expecting results not to be realized. The wiser way for the peace of society and the interest of the State is to place prison industries on the same ground as free industries, and defend that. It is also said in opposition to the contract system that contractors do not pay as much for the labor of convicts as free laborers command.”
In 2005 the federal offenses for which people are incarcerated include: Drug
Offenses 59.6%; Robbery 9.8%; Property
Offenses 5.5%; Extortion, Fraud, Bribery
6.8% ; Violent Offenses 2.7% ; Firearms, Explosives, Arson 8.6% ; White Collar
1.0%; Immigration 2.8%; Courts or
Corrections 0.8%; National Security
0.1%; Continuing Criminal Enterprise
0.8%; Miscellaneous 1.5% . 54% of prisoner in state custody for the same
time were incarcerated for violent crimes, with drug offenses coming in at 20%
and property crimes at 19%. The racial
breakdown of prisoners in the U.S. is another tragedy: of the prison population
in toto of 2.3 million in 2008 there
were 4,777 black male inmates per 100,000 black males held in state and federal
prisons and local jails, compared to 1,760 Hispanic male inmates per 100,000
Hispanic males and 727 white male inmates per 100,000 white males—that means
that the black incarceration rate was double and then double and then
half-doubled again that of whites. What
this also means is that there were more blacks in jail cells than in college
dorm rooms in 2008.
I'm not sure that any amount of creative statistical mathemartistry could bring these figures to life for some sort of practical application in 2009, the present situation in the prisons being so immense and pervasive. Numbers and assorted data from the past usually have the capacity to help us see where we are today; as I said earlier, I think that these fossils are simply that: dead.