Monday, April 30, 2012

Privatizing America's Prisons: A Money Exchange

The spectacle of the presidential and congressional election campaigns grabs our attention, but it camouflages the real contest going on in America—the battle over a government by and for the people against a government by and for corporations.  Right now, the government for corporations holds a big lead.  The tight partnership between big business and government produces the troubling activity of privatizing traditionally governmental work, handing over bloated contracts to private corporations, and having tax payers support work and projects that can hurt American citizens while stuffing the pockets of corporations.

A striking example of the government-corporate handiwork involves the U.S. prison system.  In the past 50 years the prison-industry has matured and taken over the expansion and operation of prisons across the country.  During that time, the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. has skyrocketed.  Presently, the U.S. has 7.1 million people under correctional supervision (2.3 million of them behind bars).  That is 760 people per 100,000.  In 1980, the rate was one-fourth of what it is now.  The U.S. puts more people in prison than almost every other nation.  With 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. houses 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.  States spend about six times more money on prisons than on education.  For example, in 2011, California spent 9.6 billion on prisons and 5.7 billion on education.

Wisconsin is home to 20 prisons and 14 minimum-security correctional facilities. We store over 23,000 inmates in those centers.

The government’s “War on Drugs” has been a big reason for the astonishing growth in prisons and prisoners.  In 1980, there were about 40,000 people in American jails and prisons for drug crimes.  These days, there are almost 500,000.

The prison-industry’s powerful lobby has pushed for tougher drug laws and longer prison terms for drug offenders and dealers.  The more drug use, the more arrests, the more prisoners, the more profit for the prison-industry.

This cozy relationship between corrections corporations and the U.S. congress and Department of Justice sets up a damaging conflict with “we the people.”  The obvious public good involves having the fewest number of individuals housed in the smallest number of prisons.  The economic good also calls for fewer prisons and prisoners.  But that position stands in direct opposition to the direction of the corporate corrections’ players.  Their goal is to build as many prisons as possible, warehouse as many prisoners as the system can hold, and to charge the American taxpayers as much as they can, all to keep increasing their profit.

Read this statement from the largest company in prison work, the Corrections Corporation of America, to their investors:
Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities…  The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.  For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.
(Source: NYT, ”Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations’, by Adam Liptak, Apr. 23, 2008)

Does anything in that statement serve the common good?  Do corporations trying to increase the prison population in any way help the American people?  In fact, it turns out that the U.S. government serves the prison industry by privatizing the work of the judicial system and by creating tougher laws setting mandatory prison time for often, minor crimes.  Furthermore, how hard is the prison-industry going to work on rehabilitating prisoners?  They profit more from released prisoners coming back for a second and third stay.  They like having loyal, return customers.

The U.S. Department of Justice should take back its prison system.  It should reduce the number of inmates housed in jails to only those who are a threat to others in society.  Take the money saved from ending new prison construction and put it into services and education of convicted persons who remain on the outside.  They can be punished more cheaply and effectively by continuing to live in the community and by serving the community they have injured.  Then the common good is served rather than the pockets of the Corrections Corporation of America.

The prison-industry and the U.S. government, linked hand-in-hand. Another example of corporate money in governance.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Gunmen Never Act Alone

Gun advocates read off the same tiresome script whenever a shooting occurs: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” “The shooter was mentally deranged,”  “My Second Amendment right is sacred,” and “The gunman acted alone.”

Truth be told, people shooting guns kill people.  So what if the shooter was mentally deranged.  Aren’t we all a little when we get scared, angry, intolerant, or self-righteous?  The second amendment was ratified in 1791 dealing with circumstances back then.  It’s 2012 now and handguns keep increasing in number and power.  What makes sense today?

But the most delusional statement coming from the NRA and gun people is, “The gunman acted alone.”  No, a gunman never acts alone.

Take the Bo Morrison case in Slinger, WI.  Adam Kind, a homeowner complained to police about a noisy party in the garage next door.  The young people heard the police were coming and they fled in every direction.  Morrison hid in Kind’s enclosed porch to avoid getting caught.  Kind loaded his gun and shot Morrison once in the chest, killing him.  Because he was protecting his family and home, he was not arrested for destroying a human life.

Kind did not stand on that porch alone.  He had company—the guests of honor being Governor Scott Walker and the Wisconsin state legislature, who recently passed a concealed-carry law followed by a castle doctrine law.  In effect, they told Kind he could have a gun on his person and secondly, he could/should use it if he felt threatened by a person on his property.  Also on Kind’s porch stood 48 other states with their gun supporting laws.  These laws have created a national blanket of justification for Adam Kind as he loaded his gun and shot an unarmed 20 year-old.

There were more on deck.  In his ear he heard the NRA telling him he has a right and a duty to carry a gun to protect his family and property.  And the NRA brought along its own guest to the party on Kind’s porch—the gun industry.   They lobby with the NRA for any legislation that makes it easier for them to build and sell more guns.  They nodded approvingly as Kind’s gun went off in Slinger.

What happened on Kind’s property fit into a larger national and international scene where tribes and nations’ have grabbed for natural resources and wealth through conflicts and wars for thousands of years.  Military conflicts and weapons of mass destruction have shaped the attitudes and values of our global society.  Adam Kind is embedded, as are we all, in the military-industrial complex, of which President Eisenhower warned.  Immersed in a weapons/war global culture, no wonder a frightened, perhaps angry man in Slinger, WI. pulled the trigger on the life of a young man foolish enough to hide from the police on a stranger’s porch.

We have too many guns, bombs, tanks, missiles, and IEDs on the world market.  Instead of passing laws putting more guns in the hands of people, we should be working in the opposite direction – reducing the manufacture and distribution of guns around the world.  In the Small Arms Survey 2007 conducted by the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International Studies, the U.S. placed 90 guns in the hands of every 100 citizens.  U.S. citizens owned 270 million of the world’s 875 million known firearms.  Each year Americans purchase over 4.5 million new guns.  This same arms industry, with the cooperation and facilitation of the U.S. federal government, has supplied arms and military technology to much of the world.  Billions of dollars in sales for the arms industry; intense, bloody conflicts and wars around the world; the glorification of guns, violence, and conquest all create a global culture of danger, fear, and self-protection. We now think security comes with more guns and the legal encouragement to use them as a first option. 

While I know there isn’t much hope of getting guns out of our communities,  I believe we need to attack the root of this problem, and not make distracting sounds about the second amendment and gunmen acting alone.  David Henry Thoreau said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the roots.”  The root of the gun problem is the continual increase in the number of guns in our societies and the encouragement to use those guns in the name of self-defense and personal freedom.  We need the opposite: a drive to decrease the number of small arms, with the ultimate goal (or hope) of eliminating guns and weapons so our children might have a safer world.  Having fewer guns in our communities offers a far better chance for all of us living in security and peace.   

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Get Money Out of Politics

I support the excellent efforts of environmental groups to restrain the forces of industry and greed in their determination to extract every last resource out of the earth. From the Sierra Club, National Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Defense Fund to our own local Clean Wisconsin, WI. League of Conservation Voters, Midwest Environmental Advocates, and Milwaukee Riverkeeper, all are trying diligently to protect our land, water, and air.

But I’m beginning to feel the futility of our struggle. Every once in a while, we put a stone on the small pile of “victories”—Gogebic Taconite decides to leave Wisconsin instead of tearing apart our northwest. Great, but Scott Walker’s already lining up other mining companies, no doubt. We’ve laid down some decent sized stones protecting several fragile wetlands, but the Republican State legislature, along with land developers just blew through that little pile of rocks. Even our great victory—the Great Lakes Compact—is being pressured by Waukesha to let water flow out of the watershed. And the enacting legislation (the little that exists three years later) needed from all eight Great Lakes States looks pretty weak, probably too weak to hold back the forces of national and international water demands in the future.

As a person who thinks our security and a bright future lies in a clean, healthy environment providing life-sustaining resources for all Earth’s creatures, I’m feeling helpless and discouraged about making that day come. I think we have lost the battle to contain global warming. CO2 emissions continue rising every year. The struggle to replace fossil fuels as our main energy source with renewable fuel sources keeps getting beaten down. The voices crying out that it “costs too much” on any effort to clean and protect our land, water, and air drown out the whispers for environmental values and sanity.

I can no longer answer people’s question, “What can I do?” with “Live your individual life by conserving water and energy as best you can. Every little bit helps.” I’m sorry, but it doesn’t really. It might make us feel good for the moment, like religion makes the poor and enslaved content to stay in their misery while their masters play and wreak havoc on our Earth-home.

The only way we will win this war against extractive economic forces that have little regard for natural and social capital is by getting money out of politics. While we all continue working on our specific environmental issues, either personally or in groups, we also need to join forces with those groups who are trying to disengage corporate money and politics.

To solve the problems of global warming, inadequate quantity and quality of drinking water, air pollution that kills thousands, perhaps millions around the world, it is essential that we have strong, national environmental policies and direction set by our governing bodies. These policies can only be created when corporate lobbyists and money no longer control the politicians, who should be controlling corporate behavior.

I just rejoined Common Cause after years of inattention because they are working to counter the Citizens United fiasco of the Supreme Court. I also read Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s book, Winner Take-All Politics, which motivated me, and will you if you read it, to turn your attention to and add your personal voices and those of your organizations in demanding that policy-makers must be allowed to govern independent of big or any money. Finally, I heard a fascinating presentation (“Republic Lost”) by Lawrence Lessig, a professor of law and ethics at Harvard law school, on Blip.TV that sealed the deal. Watch it. It’s an eye-opener. (

We have to get money out of politics to win the war for the environment. As I turn my attention toward the corrupt and entangled relationship between corporate power and governance, I find a bit of hope stirring in me once again. I’m still not sure my individual actions of turning off the water when I brush my teeth or unplugging all my electrical devises before bedtime will change anything, but I am beginning to think we might still win the big victory for the environment if we can get the money out of governance and politics, especially electoral politics.