Mathematical models challenge efficacy of prison system

As the design of the new Dutchess County Jail, with a budget of $192 million and a holding capacity of 569 beds, moves toward the set construction date of March 2017, an investigative project at Arizona State University conducted by Tulane University student Jessica Conrad and supervised by Professor of Mathematics Benjamin Morin reveals conflicts of interest between prisons and the public good. Conrad’s presentation on Oct. 27 engaged students and faculty from various departments, including Mathematics, Economics and Political Science, with a lively discussion of a quantitative model and its sociopolitical implications.

The investigative project focused on the recidivism programs of for-profit prisons in Louisiana, informally known as the prison capital of the world for its current incarceration rate of 816 per 100,000 people, exceeding even the highest annual national incarceration rate of 755 per 00,000 in 2008, according to the World Prison Brief. Due to state stipends for keeping inmates and providing recidivism programs, Louisiana for-profit prisons receive the most government funds when they run programs that are ineffective at reducing recidivism or reducing the chance that criminals will become second-time or third-time offenders under the three-strikes law.

Conrad affirmed, “Prisons don’t work. That’s been known for decades. They don’t reduce crime rates at all, and in fact in some cases they increase crime rates. Because most of the offenders you have in jail are non-violent, what they really need is some sort of rehabilitation program to go back into society.” She gave an example of a more successful alternative, explaining, “France actually doesn’t have prisons anymore; they just have jail for violent offenders and their crimes rates have dropped in the last five years. If you’re building a jail, I would say don’t.”

Assistant Professor of Political Science Taneisha Means agreed, “Conrad’s suggestion is quite accurate; the construction of a new, expensive and larger jail in Dutchess County is not the solution to jail overcrowding in the area. There are various alternatives to incarceration, which can, among other things, reduce prison and jail costs, and rehabilitate offenders. Such alternatives to jail expansion can take the form of restorative and transformative justice.” In addition to community-based responses to criminality, Means suggested, “Many of the individuals incarcerated in Dutchess County have substance abuse and mental health issues; emphasis also needs to be on diverting these individuals from arrest and jail into treatment. As groups such as End the New Jim Crow Action Network (ENJAN) advocate, the county’s focus needs to be on the sources of jail overcrowding.” A major argument for advocacy groups like ENJAN is that 70 percent of the prison population was convicted of non-violent crimes, with the vast majority entering the prison system as a result of the War on Drugs in the 1970s.

“Being that Louisiana is largely a state of people of color, there are already many prejudices that others have about the people who live there,” reflected lecture attendee Jessalyn Nelson ’17. Elaborating on the causes rather than the effects of criminality and recidivism, Nelson continued, “There are also not many economic opportunities for those who live there so it limits the legal options people have to make money, leading to an increase in drug involvement. The fact that [Conrad] said the new jail is not necessary is no surprise to me. Putting people in jail for non-violent crimes only defers the drug process, not prevents it. That fact does not change no matter where the location.”

Placing the discussion of prison issues in the contemporary political context, Morin reflected, “As this election season has highlighted, there are conflicting views on the issues of poverty, crime, race and privilege. As we make incremental change, it is important to take a multifaceted approach to understand the underlying mechanisms that allow such things to remain systemic, e.g., the way we are failing our citizens in the mission of reformation and rehabilitation of criminals.”

Nelson framed recidivism as a recurrent sociopolitical issue, arguing, “When people cannot find jobs, they turn to other, less legal, means of earning income, which causes them to get arrested and become institutionalized once arrested. This endless cycle makes it so people cannot live unless they are partaking in these activities, which won’t break unless they receive help and education on how to live independent of the drug system. Unless the [Presidential] candidates really act on their propositions in securing more jobs and investing in breaking recidivism, the cycle will remain.”

One major aspect of the discussion about prisons, criminality and recidivism is rigorous data collection and analysis. Morin noted, “[Our government] should seek to serve the will of the people, a population that presumably wishes to lead fulfilling lives free of crime, and a criminal justice system that should seek to serve justice in such a way that all are made better for it.” He continued, “A quantification of…these goals, a description of the feedback loops that exist between them and a proper formulation of how the execution of these directives is sensitive to various demographics would be the most fulfilling direction to take this model moving forward.”

Means emphasized the importance of hearing real stories, not just extrapolating information from numerical data. “Numbers can only tell part of a story. Qualitative methods often enrich and provide nuance to a topic. This type of nuance is particularly important when studying mass incarceration because incarcerated individuals are human beings, and communities and human lives are greatly and deeply affected by this problem,” she elaborated. Pointing out the importance of reducing conflicts of interest and maintaining a fair discussion, Means continued, “[T]he primary goal is, or at least should be, to create a more just and equitable society, so being open and receptive to what it will take to achieve that goal is crucial.”

On the theme of diverse methodologies, Means said, “It was great to interact with the Math Department and other departments about this salient issue, because mass incarceration is undeniably an inter- and multi-disciplinary problem.” Nelson agreed, “Both of my parents, as well as all of my extended family, are from Louisiana so I’m always interested to hear about the state. There also isn’t much ever said about Louisiana, especially in the north, so I was excited to see there was a lecture just on Louisiana. Conrad’s lecture was on profit maximization which sounds a lot like an economic problem and was why I was particularly interested in the lecture. I’m an economics major so I was interested to see how this economic problem was addressed from a mathematical perspective.”

Morin also expressed appreciation for the multidisciplinary aspect of this work, saying, “The take away message would be that real problems are hard and that hard problems cannot be solved within single disciplines in ways that can effect meaningful change.” Referring to recent academic trends at Vassar, he noted, “[O]ur Cognitive Science Department is a prime example of a melding of philosophy, computer science, mathematics and biology. Politics and social equity are both studies of financial opportunity. Understanding the economics that drive social change has become an ever-increasing focus of study between economics, political science and social/cultural anthropology. And wouldn’t you know it, a readily available common language already exists that can facilitate collaboration and the exchange of ideas–that of mathematics.”

Means, in contrast to Morin’s focus on mathematics as the common language, concluded, “One of the most important take-away points of Conrad’s lecture is mass incarceration is an inherently political topic. There are multiple and often times conflicting political and economic interests, which makes discussing and working towards ending mass incarceration and reducing recidivism challenging.”

Returning to the broader role of applied mathematics in investigative projects, Morin concluded, “I try to teach my students to use equations the way I do, as a straightforward formalism of our intuition and a way to ascribe structure to beautiful things. It is important to me that mathematics at Vassar is not just something for the mathematicians, physicist or computer scientists. To me it is a tool that we can use to better understand our world.”

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