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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

State budget inadvertently funding school-to-prison pipeline

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In the biennial budget, the state has appropriated $800 million more in cash for revised upward estimates for the Westville Correctional Facility rebuild. This significant allocation is on top of the $440 million already appropriated for the rebuild in the 2021 budget.

While the Westville rebuild is important to ensure conditions are humane and modernized, Hoosier common sense and frugality ought to prevail to avoid the unnecessary spending of taxpayer dollars. Further, the recent news that the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City will be closed down and inmates will be transported to Westville and other facilities across the state ought to concern Hoosiers. The insinuation that this closure and the integration of the two facilities will not cost Hoosiers more money is optimistic at best and naïve at worst. This unforeseen change – which will see the eight men on death row in Michigan City being relocated along with an additional 2,000 plus maximum-security offenders – will likely require the allocation of more state dollars to fund the project, similar to an instance in Pennsylvania when constant and continued change-orders and delays added additional, unanticipated costs to their states’ mega-prison construction project.

If Indiana does move ahead with this renovation and integration of prisons, there are a few national examples we could learn a lot from.

In Alabama, for example, two prisons were funded for $1.3 billion – two for the price of one that Indiana was going to pay for until the inclusion of the Indiana State Prison to the project just last week, which includes no additional funding above what was provided for just the Westville Prison rebuild. While some of this was funded with American Rescue Plan dollars, Alabama officials also bonded $785 million of the total cost, along with a more reasonable $154 million in general fund dollars to complete the project. Indiana could have done something similar by bonding only half of the project, freeing up $400 million for mental health and other underfunded pressing needs our state has yet again failed to address. In addition, for instance, other states are implementing non-incarceration alternatives recommended by the Vera Institute that will save those states millions of dollars and lead to better rehabilitative outcomes for many offenders. Years ago, Gov. Mitch Daniels had the Vera Institute analyze Indiana’s prison systems for potential reforms including alternatives for incarceration. One must ask why those recommendations were not followed now that we are building yet another super prison.

Efforts also need to be made to pare down non-essential costs incorporated into the Westville rebuild. Certain technological renovations planned – including a button that tells inmates what the weather is outside and what time it is – are nice but not vital to improve the conditions those at Westville are living in. We need to be sticking to what is essential to make this facility livable and humane.

These renovation projects also shed light, albeit inadvertently, on the school-to-prison pipeline in our state. Indiana’s biennial budget in 2023 elected to provide almost the same amount of funding to just one prison – now magically two all of a sudden with no increase in total costs — as it did the total amount of basic tuition support to all state schools through 2025.

One prison received the same amount of money that every K-12 school in Indiana received for teacher pay increases and other essential items schools need to fund. What does it say about our priorities when we are willing to allocate an exorbitant amount of money to a single prison while leaving our schools underfunded? We are setting our teachers and students up for failure and wonder why our school-to-prison pipeline is so apparent.

Thankfully, we can inject some fiscal sanity into the process before it is too late. The budget does have a clause where any drawdown of the $800 million appropriation will need State Budget Committee approval. I sit on the State Budget committee as a member and plan to diligently take a prudent look at any additional requests for funding, including cost-overruns and change orders when it comes to the funding of this project.

State Rep. Gregory W. Porter represents Indiana’s 96th House District and is the Ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.

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