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Why RI struggles to control prison costs

If it seems like the state is frittering around the edges of trying to reduce rapidly expanding prison costs, you're not imagining it. Tom Mooney had an insightful story in yesterday's ProJo, showing how the state has long resisted efforts to make greater use of alternative programs.

Earlier this month a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts said Connecticut, a state which once had one of the fastest-growing prison populations, is now one of only three states projected to buck the national trend of growing inmate populations through this decade.

So why isn’t Rhode Island using a tool that’s been hanging in the correctional shed for decades?

Three main reasons, says Corrections Director A.T. Wall:

• Leaders of the union representing correctional officers have successfully sabotaged every effort.

• The General Assembly has failed to tweak existing laws to ensure that halfway houses have a big enough pool of eligible candidates.

• And a systemic abhorrence to any correctional program not run on the Howard Complex in Cranston, home to the Adult Correctional Institutions.

“Trust me,” says Wall. “We’ve tried.”

Halfway houses have been repeatedly studied and repeatedly recommended for use in Rhode Island for almost 25 years.

. . . .

Ultimately Rhode Island decided to fight prison crowding using another method, a means that all sides agreed would be necessary no matter how many halfway houses it might have wanted to open: build new prisons.

Through out the 1990s the state spent millions of dollars renovating and expanding existing facilities at the ACI and building a new medium-security prison. The plan worked and for a time concerns about overcrowding faded. But state and corrections officials knew it would only be a matter of a few years before they could be facing the problem again.

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