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If the states are the great engines of federalism, and social experimentation flourishes in each of our 50 self-governing laboratories, then here is an experiment that Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland ought to try. Close down one of the state’s prisons, and sell it to a private drug rehabilitation agency. Create much-needed beds for drug treatment programs. We have for-profit prisons; why not turn the engines of enterprise in the direction of making people well? Nationwide, we are spending about $34 billion per year to house the nation’s inmates. That’s $65,000 per minute. The prison-industrial complex is one of the economy’s fastest growing sectors, and it is not just recession proof; it thrives on hard times. During the past 20 years, prison spending nationwide increased 571 percent; spending on education for grades kindergarten through 12 increased a paltry 33 percent. In Connecticut, the Department of Correction wants another new prison. According to Commissioner John Armstrong, at the rate we are throwing people away we have an immediate need for 1,600 new beds. The estimated cost of the human warehouse is $200 million. It will cost $54 million per year to run thereafter. I suppose no sum is too great to spend if it makes us feel safe. But what are we really buying here? We are buying failure, recidivism, and the destruction of yet another generation of young people of color. Why not spend less to create a better community? It appears to be no irony that the birth of the modern prison in the United States roughly paralleled Reconstruction in the South and the development of industry in the North. Slaves were freed — sort of — and left to float on the labor market. Lots of people moving about; a period of tremendous creative destruction, in the words of Austrian political economist Joseph Schumpeter. Prisons emerged as a substitute for plantations. Am I too rash, too quick to throw down the racial gauntlet? In Connecticut, black men make up less than 3 percent of the state’s population, but almost half the prison population. Most of these men are incarcerated as a result of narcotics offenses. These figures parallel those of other states. Why the charade of justice? “No one wants to be seen as soft on crime, but everyone wants to feel safe,” notes state Rep. William R. Dyson, D-New Haven, the chairman of the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee. Dyson spoke the other night in New Haven to a group of activists opposing the construction of a new prison in New Haven. He relayed mind-blowing numbers. It will cost the state $35,000 to imprison a man for a year. The cost of a bed in a drug treatment facility is about $20,000 per year, and four or five people may use that bed annually. For less money, more people will be served, and some significant number of them will beat the grip of narcotics. The need for treatment is overwhelming. The vast majority of inmates in the state Department of Correction enter the system suffering from substance abuse; yet, only about one in 10 is offered treatment. There is not enough treatment to go around. So here’s the proposal, Gov. Rowland. Create a task force to identify one prison to close. Then request competitive bids from private contractors to operate the facility as a drug treatment center. If necessary, subsidize the facility with bond money. We kid ourselves by thinking that it makes economic sense to lock people up, offer no treatment, and then release them into the community without training or support. Recidivism is a way of life if we do nothing to break the cycle of addiction and despair. Norm Pattis is a name partner at New Haven, Conn.’s Williams and Pattis.

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