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.

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