Friday, October 18, 2019

Local Elections Matter

Local Elections Matter  

by Ted Miller
(originally published November 2019 in Tumbleweird)

If past is prologue, less than a third of eligible voters will cast a ballot this month. For voters under 35, only one in five will exercise their right to decide who will represent them on their city council, school board, or county commission. 

And yet, those in local office have the biggest impact on our daily lives, particularly for younger citizens and those in marginalized groups. 

City councils decide things like tax rates, park use and maintenance, police oversight, sale of public land to developers, policies on inclusiveness and equal rights, urban sprawl, bicycle and pedestrian safety, business licenses and zoning, and the list goes on. School boards directly affect support for our teachers and the quality of our children’s education. Other local elected officials like county commissioners and sheriffs also have a significant impact on the community they serve.

Every vote is important. The 2017 outcome of Virginia’s 94th legislative district determined whether the state legislature would be controlled by Republicans or Democrats. The election was decided by a single contested vote that led to a tie and ultimately a coin toss. A single vote in one district decided which party would lead the legislature for the entire state. Never think your vote won’t make a difference.

Washington State makes voting easy. Voting is secure with paper ballots that arrive in the mail at least 18 days before an election, giving you plenty of time to vote and return your ballot. The state even pays for postage. Unlike many parts of the country, we live in a state with very few barriers to voting.

When you sit down with your ballot, do your best to understand the issues and vote for the candidates who align best with your values. In this issue of Tumbleweird, we are publishing city council and school board candidate responses to a survey we sent them on a range of issues we think are important to our readers. Other sources of information include letters to the Tri-City Herald, the Voters’ Pamphlet published by the Secretary of State, and the League of Women Voters information at

Campaign ads on television and social media are probably the least reliable source of information. There is no requirement for “truth in advertising” when it comes to political ads. They are designed to elicit an emotional response and they will shade the truth at best or publish complete falsehoods at worst. Millions are spent to try to convince you to vote a certain way, and not always for what is in your best interest.

Initiatives and referenda ballot measures can be misleading in the way they are stated. Make sure you understand the impact and don’t just vote on the title or what you see in advertising. Remember that whoever is behind the measure wants something, and that something may have consequences that negatively impact you and our community. 

If you want to make our community a better place, if you want your government to represent you as it works for all of us, vote.

Voter turnout is particularly low in years without a presidential election. It’s never been more important to get out the vote. 

Talk to your friends, family, and coworkers. Encourage them to register and vote. You can easily register online or check your registration status at You can even check on the status of your ballot and see your entire voting history.

You have until October 28th to register online or by mail. You can register in person until Election Day, November 5th

In the primary this year, many of the races were highly competitive. If every eligible voter reading Tumbleweird casts a ballot, we could determine the outcome of the election.

Please vote.

Friday, September 20, 2019

It’s Not Enough to be a Good White Person

It’s Not Enough to be a Good White Person

by Ted Miller
(originally published in Tumbleweird October 2019)

I’m a white man. I have benefited my whole life from the systemic racism that began over 500 years ago in Europe, was brought to America through colonialism and displacement of indigenous peoples, expanded with the horrors of slavery, and continues to benefit whites today.

If you are a white person and don’t understand that, you need to reflect on your privilege. 

White privilege doesn’t mean that white people don’t have to work for what they achieve in life. It doesn’t mean poverty doesn’t afflict white Americans. It doesn’t mean white people have it easy. It just means that being white is not something that negatively impacts our lives. A white person doesn’t have to think about what it means to be white.

BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) don’t have that luxury. Race is something that affects everything; wealth, income, criminal justice, education, housing, medical care, and every other aspect of life. A few statistics to illustrate this impact (there are hundreds of studies and sources for similar information):

·     If you are black in America, your family earns just $57.30 for every $100 a white family earns. For every $100 of wealth a white family holds, a black family only holds $5.04. [i]
·     If you are a black student, you are three times as likely to be suspended or expelled from school than your white counterpart.[ii]
·     One in three black boys born today will go to prison some time in their life. One in seven Latino boys will go to prison. Only one in seventeen white boys end up in prison.[iii]
·     58 percent of prisoners are black or Hispanic, despite making up one quarter of the U.S. population[iv]
·     Neighborhoods in America are still largely segregated. The historic practice of redlining, which kept blacks out of white neighborhoods, and the disproportionate effect of the 2008 mortgage crisis on blacks are two of the factors that have led to black home ownership at 42% compared to 72% for whites.[v]

These are just a few examples of how racist policy produces racist outcomes. The statistics don’t adequately describe the daily injustices black people experience. Like having the police called when you are napping in your dorm, or barbecuing in a park with your family, or sitting in Starbucks waiting for a friend, or for just existing while black. These recent examples in the news happen everywhere, every day. They are so common that they inspired the hashtag #LivingWhileBlack. (see for more examples.)  I personally know of several similar recent incidents right here in the Tri-Cities.

And I don’t need to remind you how many unarmed black men are shot by police.

Racism is real in America.

“But I’m not a racist,” you say.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, in his newly released book How to Be an Antiracist, explains his concept of racism by reframing the terms “racist” and “antiracist”.  A racist is “one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.” An antiracist, then, is “one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.” Kendi says the opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist,” but “antiracist.”

Claiming that one is “not racist” has no real meaning. No one likes to be called a racist and most white people truly believe they are not racist. Several years ago I would have assured you that I was not racist. White supremacists say they are not racist. Donald Trump has said he is “the least racist person there is anywhere in the world.” 

Saying you are not a racist doesn’t mean you don’t support racist policies and ideas.

Robin DiAngelo in her book White Fragility said, “If, as a white person, I conceptualize racism as a binary and I place myself on the ‘not racist’ side, what further action is required of me? No action is required, because I am not a racist. Therefore, racism is not my problem; it doesn’t concern me and there is nothing further I need to do.”

To claim we aren’t racist is to deny our role in a society designed to benefit white people. To say “I’m not racist” is to say that I don’t have any responsibility for the effects of racism on BIPOC. 

After the 2016 election, people who were upset about policies that were negatively impacting travelers from Muslim countries, refugees from Central America, and other marginalized groups often repeated the quote: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Good white people doing nothing about racism allows racism to thrive. White people doing nothing perpetuates a system of racial inequality.

I am by no means an expert on racism. I can never understand what it is like to live as a BIPOC. But, I can listen and learn, and perhaps, in some small way, try to be less racist and more antiracist.

As I work on this, I will continue to make mistakes. I will hurt someone who is BIPOC when I don’t mean to. I will support a policy with racist outcomes without thinking about it. Working on racism is hard, but as white people, it’s on us to own the impact of our racism. I believe it’s important to try to make the world a better place for everyone, so I’ll keep working at it.

To my white readers, I encourage you to take a hard look at yourself and do some self-reflection. How has your whiteness benefited you? How has it impacted BIPOC? Educate yourself by reading BIPOC authors who write about race and following them on social media. Listen. Talk about race with friends and coworkers. Join a discussion group. Don’t just live in your white bubble.

If you want to make a difference, you have to do some work. Being a good white person isn’t enough.

Book recommendations: “So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

Recommended authors:  James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Isabel Wilkerson, Ijeoma Oluo, Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, Michelle Alexander, Cornel West, Frederick Douglass.

[i]NY Times, 9/18/17, “Whites Have Huge Wealth Edge Over Blacks (but Don’t Know It
[ii]US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, March 21, 2014, “Data Snapshot: School Discipline.”
[v]Chicago Tribune, July 21, 2017, “Why black homeownership rates lag even as the housing market recovers

Friday, August 16, 2019

Gun Violence is Still a Problem, Let’s Do Something

Gun Violence is Still a Problem, Let’s Do Something

by Ted Miller
(originally published in Tumbleweird September 2019)

The rate of gun violence in the United States continues to rise. Mass shootings dominate headlines, but every day over 100 people are killed with a gun and we barely notice. Hundreds more are injured. Gun violence is so quotidian that it takes an act of terrorism to even break through the news cycle. The statistics show we have a problem, but the debate about what to do is hobbled by polarizing rhetoric.

Some blame mental illness, violent video games, the breakdown of the family, and, ironically, not enough people with guns. But these arguments as the cause for gun violence don’t hold up under scrutiny.

Gun violence is a complicated issue. There are many factors that lead to gun injuries and deaths and there is no single solution. But there is one thing that all gun violence has in common: guns.

Access to guns is the common factor in all gun violence, but that doesn’t mean just having access to guns causes gun violence. We can reduce the risk that a gun will be used in a violent act by regulating gun access without infringing on the rights of responsible gun owners. 

The vast majority of Americans believe there are practical, workable steps that can be taken to reduce gun violence. We refuse to believe that we have to accept the status quo, but where do we start?

First, we need to get out of political polarization paralysis and agree that something can be done. Collectively, we need to demand action from federal, state, and local governments. Individually, we can support organizations that are working to reduce gun violence and vote for candidates that support common sense gun regulation. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Gun violence is a public safety issue. 

In Congress, the House of Representatives passed two bills earlier this year that would close gun sale loopholes and require universal background checks. After the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, the Senate may finally consider passing this legislation. Improved background checks will close legal loopholes that allow guns to be transferred or sold to those who should not have access. 

So-called “red flag” laws, also known as Extreme Risk laws, allow family members and law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily remove guns from someone who poses a danger to themselves or others. In the seventeen states that have these laws, there has been a reduction in homicide and suicide without restricting the right to due process. Congress should take up legislation to expand this nationally.

Military-grade weapons have no place in civilian ownership. The assault weapons ban should be debated and reinstated. In 30 seconds, the Dayton shooter was able to kill 9 people and injure 26 more before police were able to stop him. There is no reason to allow unrestricted civilian access to a weapon that can kill so many people so quickly and efficiently. These are weapons of war, not sport or self-defense. 

Other regulation that could help would be universal gun license and registration, required gun safety education, gun owner accountability, and technology that uses biometric recognition to allow a gun to be fired. All these will require more study and debate, but they could significantly reduce gun injury and death. 

In addition to gun control, we can provide more funding for gun violence research, mental health and suicide prevention, combating white nationalist terrorism, and countering hateful rhetoric that leads to violence.

Guns are deeply rooted in the American culture, but we can have our guns and reduce gun violence, too. We don’t have to repeal the second amendment or confiscate guns from responsible citizens. But we must do something.

Acknowledging that America has a gun violence problem isn’t enough. As a frustrated crowd chanted to the governor of Ohio after the most recent mass shootings, we must Do Something! 

Note: Sources of gun violence data may be found at and

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Transgender Rights are Human Rights

Transgender Rights are Human Rights
(originally published in Tumbleweird June 2019)

by Ted Miller

In my thirty years as an officer in the United States Navy, being gay was cause for a “less than honorable” discharge. What that meant was that a shipmate could be formally labeled as undesirable and forced out of the military just for being themselves, denying them veterans benefits and the equal treatment afforded their straight peers. Their military skills, fitness reports, or length of service didn’t matter. 

Military members are citizen soldiers, reflecting the diversity of race, sexuality, gender, and religion in our nation. There have always been gay members of the military. I knew some when I served. But until recently, some service members had to hide their true selves in order to serve. Not only were they willing to sacrifice their lives for their country, they had to sacrifice a piece of themselves while serving. 

In 1993, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” allowed gay, lesbian, and bisexual (LGB) people to serve only if they kept their orientation secret. When DADT was finally repealed in 2011, allowing them to serve openly, study after study showed that LGB members have no impact on military readiness.

Openly transgender people were finally allowed to serve beginning in 2016. But the Trump administration started working to reverse that in July 2017, just as the new policy was to take full effect. Last month, the Supreme Court allowed this renewed transgender ban to take effect while challenges work their way through the courts.

This is not a readiness issue. There have been no issues from allowing openly transgender people to serve their country. The only purpose for this ban is to deny the fair and equal treatment of transgender individuals, to formally state through government policy that their value is not the same as their cis-gendered colleagues.

Charlotte Clymer, a transgender Army veteran, said in a CBS opinion piece April 7, 2019:

“The lies perpetuated about transgender people serving in the military have been thoroughly debunked and rejected, by medical experts, by budget analysts, by military generals and admirals, by the vast majority of the American people, and not least by a history of Americans who have been barred from service and proved bigots wrong.

“They barred men of color. They barred women. They barred gay, lesbian and bisexual people. We have been at this intersection of fear, cynicism, and outright ignorance many times, and we are always reminded that the only true threats to our country's strength are hatred and an absence of character.”

Denying the rights of LGBTQIA+ individuals is an attempt to deny their full humanity. Labeling sexuality or gender identity as something that doesn’t conform to a narrow view of the human expression of gender and sexual orientation is an attempt to erase their existence. 

The National Center for Transgender Equality ( says there are about 1.4 million transgender adults in the United States. Just like sexual orientation, the overwhelming consensus in the medical community is that gender identity is not a choice. And from the experiences of my transgender loved ones, I know this to be true. They each struggled from an early age to understand who they were, why they felt different, and how to express their self-identities. Their struggle was made tragically worse by family and society who constantly told them that what they were feeling was wrong, that who they were was unacceptable. Whatever the motivation, constant rejection of gender identity inevitably leads to self-doubt, self-hate, and self-harm, all too often leading to suicide. 

We have an administration that wants to allow LGBT discrimination in the name of religious freedom. Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services announced a new regulation that would allow medical providers to cite their “deeply held beliefs” as a basis to refuse service to LGBT individuals—in other words, to deny equal treatment under the law, to deny equal rights, to deny equal humanity.

For transgender individuals, allowing health care discrimination only makes the health problems they face worse. Studies published by Lambda Legal show that 56 percent of LGB and 70 percent of transgender individuals already face healthcare discrimination. Many avoid seeing a doctor when they need it most because of a fear of rejection or mistreatment.

Every human being is worthy of love and acceptance. In a self-governing nation, the government should ensure equal treatment and protection of all. That includes those whose gender may be different than what we assume based on physical characteristics. 

Forcing people into a narrow box of gender identity is harmful to them and to a society that is richer for its diversity.

Human rights apply to everyone. Transgender rights are human rights.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Divided We Will Fall

Divided We Will Fall
(originally published in Tumbleweird May 2019)

by Ted Miller

My mother used to say “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it.” 

Many of the people commenting on social media posts and online news articles seem to have missed that childhood lesson.

Every time I break my self-imposed rule to “never read the comments,” I see some of the most vile, hateful, divisive rhetoric spewed at fellow Americans and community members. What is it about the internet that makes people think that is acceptable behavior? Nobody that I interact with talks that way in person, to me or to anyone else. I know in my real-life conversations with others we often have significantly different opinions on a wide range of topics, but we don’t call each other names, yell obscenities, or accuse the other of being the enemy. So why is something we would never say to someone’s face acceptable language online?

We seem to have forgotten that we have more in common than not. Fifty years ago, Americans listened to the same news broadcasts, watched the same shows, and read the same newspapers. Our differing opinions about government, religion, and our place in the world didn’t overshadow our common experience. We shared a common set of facts and American values. Our political differences were about how government policy reflects our common values, not whether Democrats or Republicans were the enemy of the state.

The rise of talk radio, cable news, the internet, and social media changed all that. With the rapid expansion of choices in the media we consume, too many of us have moved to our own echo chambers, reinforcing our beliefs while becoming more and more skeptical of information that doesn’t fit our views. Social media algorithms continually feed us what we want to hear at the exclusion of a shared community experience. Misinformation, conspiracy, and divisive rhetoric spreads virally without regard to the facts. And our public discourse seems to have raced to the bottom of decency.

Watching this divisive rhetoric all over the news and social media today, I am struck at how deeply divided we are, and it is deeply disturbing. This divisive rhetoric has spread from talk radio and social media to the halls of Congress. We are no longer Americans fighting together for the future of our country. We are "us versus them," yelling at each other, convincing ourselves that the other is the enemy. It seems like the country is more divided today than at any time in living memory. 

Former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin said something in an interview last month that really struck me. Reflecting on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, he was surprised at how vulnerable we were to foreign influence by the Russians. Starting in 2014, the Russian government has worked to use the rise of hyper-partisanship and media fueled polarization to weaken the unity that makes our country strong. Deputy Director McLaughlin said:

"But here's what I think they were successful in. They were successful in creating or exacerbating enormous partisan divisions in our country. Just think about it. The two parties are at each other's throats. The president is immobilized on a number of foreign policy issues. Even the media, to a degree, is polarized about this issue. And the United States looks pretty bad in the eyes of the world. I think the Russians actually succeeded well beyond what they imagined they could here. And that's the other big impression that comes out of this - is how fragile we were. We thought our democracy and our cohesiveness as a nation - I did - were stronger than they turned out to be in the face of this.[i]"

This downward spiral into divisiveness has been worsening for decades. The hyperbolic partisanship that continually paints the other political party as evil has gotten to the point that party power is more important than national unity. The Russians just took advantage of that and are continuing those efforts today.

Unless we change something, this divisiveness will be our undoing, either from within or by a foreign power. 

Maybe we can start by holding each other accountable, one conversation at a time. We can encourage our friends to be more respectful in their disagreements online, particularly when they are arguing with strangers. Other than the trolls and bots, social media accounts are real people with real friends and families. Those friends see what is being said online. We should each ask ourselves if we would tolerate the insults and hate if we were witnessing the conversation in person.

Maybe we should remind our friends, and ourselves, that the golden rule applies online as well as in person. If we can make it socially unacceptable to bully and spew hate online, maybe we can start to close the divide and focus more on what we have in common.

We are all in this together. As Abraham Lincoln said, “United we stand, divided we fall.” Let’s not divide ourselves. Let’s work together to make our political discourse more positive.

If you can’t comment in a nice and respectful manner, don’t comment at all.

[i]CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin, All Things Considered, National Public Radio, 4/18/2019

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Saving Mother Earth

Saving Mother Earth
(originally published in Tumbleweird April 2019)

by Ted Miller

Last week, as the snow was finally melting from my favorite running path, I noticed a single plastic shopping bag dangling from a tree limb overhanging the Columbia River. As it moved in the gentle breeze, I thought about the person who had used that bag. Had they carelessly tossed it on the ground? Had it blown there from a nearby business? Do people even think about the consequences of littering? A single plastic bag, marring the natural beauty of the riverfront, is just a tiny example of the billions of tons of plastic released into the environment every year around the world. 

The explosion of plastic production didn’t begin until the 1950s. Today, plastic pollution is so ubiquitous that one of those plastic shopping bags was found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean.[i]We’ve all heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and have seen the pictures of wildlife killed or maimed by plastic. Biologists have even found microplastic in the tissue of fish. Plastic is cheap and convenient, but at what cost to our environment? Did the person who littered that plastic bag think about the environment when they carelessly threw that piece of single-use plastic away? Did they really need that bit of plastic to make their life more convenient?

On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, twenty million Americans rallied to call attention to the deteriorating condition of our environment, particularly the growing pollution of our air and water. Spearheaded by Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson with support from Republican Senator Pete McCloskey, the movement brought together diverse groups that had been individually fighting oil spills, factory air pollution, toxic waste dumps, wildlife extinction, and deforestation. With rare bipartisan support, Earth Day led directly to the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

Today, the Earth Day movement is the largest civic engagement event in the world with over a billion people participating in a day of action to improve the environment.[ii]There has been a lot of progress in the last forty-nine years to curb pollution through education, regulation, and activism. But the earth is still threatened with toxic waste, plastic pollution, deforestation, species extinction, and climate change.

Each of us should work to be more aware of our impact on the environment, but individually we can only help so much. Collectively, we are part of the biosphere. We are both part of the problem and the key to the solution. The planet needs global change to save itself. 

As I wrote in my January column, “The Greatest Threat to Our Existence,” the average temperature of the planet is rising. This is a fact that no amount of denial can make untrue. Thousands of scientists have concluded that humans are the cause of the dramatic rise in global temperature since the start of the industrial revolution. Without urgent action to mitigate the effects of climate change, we will be facing large scale famine, poverty, disease, and mass species extinction.[iii]

Whether the tipping point is in twelve years or fifty, if we do nothing now, life on this planet will be forever changed and humankind may not survive. We know the causes of climate change and we have the capacity to limit the global temperature rise. The solution will require comprehensive, multi-national effort, but it can be done.

Congress has proposed a set of broad-ranging policy ideas to combat climate change known as the Green New Deal. Building on the success of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal to recover from the Great Depression, the Green New Deal would work in a similar way to incentivize green energy, rebuild infrastructure, reduce or reverse carbon emissions, improve the environment, stimulate the economy, and, ultimately, save the planet. 

The United States can be the leader in combating climate change, or we can continue policies that ignore the problem until it is too little, too late. Naysayers claim the Green New Deal will cost too much, be ineffective, or put us at a disadvantage while China and the rest of the world continue to pump carbon into the atmosphere. But pointing the finger or waiting for a perfect solution won’t help. Starting now is the only way to ensure a cleaner and more sustainable environment. We can attack this problem while avoiding unintended consequences. We can help those impacted by programs under the Green New Deal while taking bold and decisive action. The United States has overcome seemingly insurmountable problems before and we can do so again. 

This Earth Day, think about your impact on the environment. Avoid using plastic bags, walk instead of driving, and recycle what you can. Think about the future of the planet.

If we really only have a decade to reverse the effects of climate change, we must prevent disaster by starting now. The time for arguing about whether climate change is real is over. It’s time for action.

[i]National Geographic, May 11, 2018, “Plastic Bag Found at the Bottom of World’s Deepest Ocean Trench.”
[ii], “The History of Earth Day.”
[iii]U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2018: Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II. The complete report may be accessed at

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Who Profits from People in Prison?

Who Profits from People in Prison?
(originally published in Tumbleweird March 2019)
by Ted Miller

Today there are more than 2.2 million people in prison in the United States – more than in China, Russia, or in any other country in the world. That means that the incarceration rate is much higher in the U.S. than anywhere else. At 698 per 100,000 people, the rate is more than 5 times higher than our closest NATO allies. 

Do we really need to lock so many people up? Who benefits from so many in prison?

In the last four decades, criminal laws that emphasize prison over probation or parole, starting with the so-called war on drugs, have resulted in a massive increase in the prison population. This trend disproportionately impacts persons of color and the poor while doing little to improve public safety. 

But the cost to the public has been profound. The cost of federal and state prisons is estimated at $80 billion per year. As part of the rapid increase in prison populations, private prison companies have gone from almost nonexistent to reaping huge profits at the taxpayer’s expense. Private prisons are now a $5 billion industry with top executives receiving millions in compensation. 

Private prison companies use strong-arm tactics and heavy lobbying to maintain their hold on the prison industry. With contracts that have minimum occupancy requirements, these companies incentivize sending people to prison to satisfy a contract instead of in response to crime. 

In 2017, CoreCivic, the largest private prison company in the U.S., threatened to close its prison in Estancia, New Mexico and lay off more than 200 workers if more prisoner beds weren’t filled. Last year, in spite of an effort to reduce the use of private prisons in Montana, CoreCivic convinced the state to extend their contract for a prison in Shelby, Montana, citing potential job losses and a promise to return $34 million to the state budget. 

Conditions of violence, understaffing, and other human rights violations are much worse in private prisons. The ACLU continues to record staff misconduct and prisoner abuses by CoreCivic, yet the company continues to grow its business across the country. Other private prison companies like The GEO Group have similar track records. In fact, problems with private prisons were bad enough that a government Inspector General report in August 2016 prompted then Attorney General Sally Yates to begin phasing out private prisons for federal inmates. This order, however, was overturned by Jeff Sessions soon after Trump took office.

More recently, private prison companies have been profiting on the dramatic increase in detaining immigrants under the Trump administration’s policies. The rapid increase in housing immigrant detainees has been a boon for private prison companies. And as we have seen in recent news, conditions in immigrant detainee facilities are often inhumane for people who have not been charged with any crime.

Prisoners and their families also suffer from the profit motive behind incarceration. Even for detainees who have yet to be convicted of a crime, private companies have arranged to gouge those caught up in the criminal justice system. Phone calls often cost a dollar a minute for families to talk to prisoners. Digital services like emails cost fifty cents to a dollar each. Substandard video teleconferencing is being sold in place of in-person visits. Prisoners often have to buy essentials like toilet paper and soap at the prison commissary at prices that are higher than market rate. The profit motive for these services skews priorities and makes our prison system worse for both inmates and society.

Young people are also a part of our growing prison population. Nearly 60,000 people under age 18 are behind bars on any given day in the U.S. Poor behaviors that used to be handled by school administrators are now often turned over to police with long-lasting effects. Youth who are imprisoned are cut off from their families, limited in their education, and often subjected to trauma and violence that far exceeds the nature of their misbehavior. This trend only adds to the cost of our prison system and shifts too much of the responsibility for our children to a criminal justice system that will not prepare them to be productive members of our society. 

Reducing the cost and overuse of the prison system will require reforms in sentencing guidelines, improvements in prison management and oversight, and updates to criminal law. Certainly, prison is an important part of a criminal justice system. Some criminals, especially those who are violent, must be separated from society. But, in many cases, there are other ways to punish and rehabilitate that are more efficient and effective. Pre-trial detention isn’t always necessary. Minor crimes, including many drug offenses, don’t always warrant the cost of sending someone to prison.

A comprehensive approach to prison reform is needed. Reducing the profit motive in something that should be a government function is a good place to start. The money spent for private prison companies and incarcerating so many people who shouldn’t be behind bars would be much better spent on education, health care, infrastructure, or any number of things that will benefit society more than locking people up.

Data sources: Although multiple news and sources were used as background for this column, all data cited can be found at and