A watercolor of someone sitting in a prison cell. By Enera Wilson.
(Enera Wilson)
Incarcerated journalist Kevin Sawyer reflects on the economic systems that keep people both in prison and on the street.

The United States misappropriates resources (including the human ones) in a business-as-usual profit over people custom.

For decades, the U.S. prison industrial complex has embraced tough-on-crime legislation to branch its growth through the incarceration of its citizens. One of the many downsides of this policy is the increase in people living in squalor while others are “sheltered” in the name of public safety.

An unwarranted amount of tax dollars have been allocated to incarcerate men, women, and children. At the same time, the homeless population has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. The number of people who can no longer afford housing is lopsided when compared to those incarcerated, technically living for free.

An unwarranted amount of tax dollars have been allocated to incarcerate men, women, and children.

“Homelessness and justice system involvement are inextricably linked: People experiencing homelessness are 11 times more likely to face incarceration when compared to the general population,” Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC) reported earlier this year. “And formerly incarcerated individuals are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public.”

In 2017, the cost to house a healthy prisoner in California was $70,810, according to the Orange County Register. At that time, “the population at many (prison) facilities (was) more than 150 percent of designed capacity.”

I am one of the 2.3 million people who’ve been disappeared in the United States. I’ve been imprisoned for 22 years. If the government’s plan for people like me remains in effect, I’ll continue to live a care-free life. But more than 20 years ago, I owned a home with a former girlfriend. We worked for two different Fortune 500 corporations. It was somewhat rare to find young African American couples like us, who were college graduates living in upscale white suburbia. Some call that the American Dream because we’d “made it.”

Our combined household income afforded us many luxuries coveted today. We didn’t want for much. We had plenty of food, the utilities were paid on time and our various investments were growing with our good credit ratings. The medical insurance through our respective employers’ group coverage was exceptional, too.

If I were allowed, I could still earn a living in a way that does not infringe on the lives of others. But my imprisonment does not allow me to help the nation’s economy, yet there is always rhetoric about prisoners expressing contrition and “giving back.” The system is not set up for prisoners to give society anything. Instead, we are condemned to serve time similar to military dependents or ghetto-dwelling welfare recipients.

In many instances, these long periods do more harm to the public than the crime that landed them in prison; the money we spend to keep people locked up could be better spent on resources that could help the most vulnerable in our communities. Instead, the prison population is
not decreasing, and the disparity of wealth is growing, along with the homeless population.

In a sense, it feels like the people who are doing the best are the ones who are locked up. Today the public pays $75,000-plus a year to keep people like me locked up because we need “rehabilitation.” In exchange, I have a clean place to sleep and never have to worry about intruders once the door is locked. Where I live, nobody has to beg for change to feed themselves.

At the same time, the homeless population has reached epidemic proportions in the United States.

I don’t make much money on the job I have as a full-time journalist at a small but growing publication called the San Quentin News. It pays less than $500 a year. But because I am in prison, it provides 100 percent health insurance which includes medical, dental, optical, and mental health coverage, if I need it. I live a relatively comfortable life. I still have enough food to eat. When I’m not playing my guitar, studying piano, playing in a band, writing poetry, fiction or exercising, I read newspapers or watch television news. There has been a lot of coverage recently about rent control, gentrification, and the increase in the state’s homeless population. Those stories used to sit on the edge of what journalists considered newsworthy.

In a strange way, I’m living the life of many civil servants because we all feed at the same public trough; albeit on different ends. Few civil servants have a vested interest in solving the problem of homelessness. Why should they when we are trapped in a system that forces us to live at the expense of the less fortunate?

Kevin D. Sawyer is a San Francisco native. He is the Associate Editor for the San Quentin News, an inmate run newspaper produced out of San Quentin State Prison. He is a 2016 recipient of The James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism.