Imprison & Invest: Private Prisons in The Age of Incarceration

This too I know–and wise it were
If each could know the same–
That every prison that men build
Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
How men their brothers maim.

  • Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Revolutions are quick and bloody things. More often than not they are volcanic with the type of rage that comes only from decades or centuries of oppression and suffering. They are the things that are immortalized in song and in art. Shakespeare writes plays about them and national anthems spring from their memory like the fruits of rebellion. And, after generations have come and gone, families and countries look back on their own St. Crispin’s Day and smile for having been part of something that great and noble, if only in spirit. Tyranny is not like this. Rather than jolting us to life, tyranny comes upon us like a sickly sweet slime, bathing us in the warmth of its familiarity until we try to move and find ourselves rooted to the spot. There is never any doubt when revolutions begin, but more often than not we must claw through the wastebin of history to find the moment when the tyrannical eclipses the humane.

Regardless of what Ron Paul’s deranged faithful say, we are not living in a time of revolution in this country. We are walking slowly on a moving sidewalk that’s heading the wrong way and, while we think that we’re making progress, we’re gradually being drug without protestation towards the type of monopolistic and money-hungry oppression that would make Cornelius Vanderbilt weep that he was not alive to see it. Things have gotten so rotten that we have re-legalized slavery in this country and many people are actually cheering its return.

Allow me to explain. 21st century slavery is a totally different beast than it’s 18th century counterpart. Gone are the days of cotton pickin’ and backbreaking manual labor from sun up to sun down. After all, we have an unlimited supply of illegal immigrants to do that kind of thing for us on the cheap. No, slavery today in America took it’s impetus from the world of agriculture. You see, there are just too damn many Americans and not enough jobs. Things were alright in the post-WWII years because most of the non-Western world was just beginning to play economic catch-up and all of Europe was a big heaping pile of rubble. We could give everyone decent work because there wasn’t another bloody country on the planet that was modern enough or not blown up enough to do it. Then, we enter the sixties and things start getting ugly. After helping Western Europe and Japan rebuild themselves, we now find that we have competitors in a global marketplace who are more efficient than us, possess newer buildings and equipment and have lower overhead than we do. What’s an economic superpower to do?

Well, they looked at farmers. During The New Deal Era, FDR was the first president to artificially lower crop yields by paying local farms to not grow things on their land, and thus not glut the market with delicious foodstuffs. It worked, more or less, and we still spend billions of dollars on agricultural subsidies today. The story of 21st century slavery picks up where most terrible things from the third quarter of the 20th century do, with Dick Nixon. After the passage of The Civil Rights Act and the gains made towards national integration in the 1960s, there was suddenly a huge movement towards having a state that was “tough on crime” and enforced “law and order.” I wonder what could have caused that? Well, here is H.R. Haldeman, President Nixon’s Chief of Staff to explain:

[President Nixon] emphasized that you had to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

Nixon for Peace? I’m surprised my computer didn’t blow up when I typed that.

And, while I know that is an oversimplification of a complicated matter, in that one sentence you can find the basis for US crime policy for the past 40 years or so. It would take most of those years to make the leap from mass, racially biased incarceration to farming subsidies, but it began to make itself clear during the middle of the Reagan Eighties.

It all starts with a word that will bring any true conservative to his knees with indescribable joy and maybe a little sexual arousal: privatization. Or, in layman’s terms, money, money, money… Sweet Jesus we’re going to make a f*** ton of money! As with all things conservative, the answer to whatever question is asked is, “the free market will fix it.” Thus, the private sector began eyeing the booming prison industry as a cash cow while acid rain from the Gipper’s ever-weakening bladder trickled-down on anyone in society not making six figures. From a business perspective, they couldn’t be more spot on, as prisons were and are a booming industry that is completely recession proof. When Nixon declared his wildly successful War on Drugs in 1971, there were around 350,000 prisoners in the US. After George W. Bush left office in 2008, that number had leapt up to over 2.4 million. That’s a seven-fold increase in prison population in less than 40 years.

What better investment could there be? It’s not like you would be subject to the whims of economic caprice anymore. Just because the Dow spiked 500 points and the Euro Zone is as stable as the hadron collider doesn’t mean that a prisoner is going to get let out any sooner. And, up until 2009 when Obama began raining on everyone’s parade, the prison population in this country had gone up for 38 years in a row. You find me any investment that has grown for 38 years straight and wasn’t run by Bernie Madoff and I’ll shave a reverse mohawk into my head.

Subsidies…subsidies…he made us read all of that mundane crap about farm subsidies and he still hasn’t brought it full circle yet. Hold on, damn it! There’s a lot of pressure writing for 30 people on the internet so give me room to breathe before I freak out, publish this in Comic Sans and become a fire-eater or something. As I had mentioned earlier, America was unprepared for the rise in unemployment that would come from an expanding global economy and suddenly, as with our crops, we had an abundance of potential labor and not nearly enough jobs to use that labor. That’s when it occurred to the Nixon Administration that it was possible to artificially lower the size of the potential labor pool by simply locking them up. It must be said, that the people who were and are targeted by these policies are not primarily people who would be counted in conventional unemployment statistics, which only apply to people who are out of work, yet have been seeking work within the past four weeks. No, 21st century slavery stems from the chronically unemployed and what is controversially known as “the underclass”. These are people who have basically given up on finding work through traditional, societally accepted means, and chose to either not work at all or make their money in ways that aren’t culturally sanctioned and often are illegal. These are the folks that we as a society don’t want to acknowledge because they are living proof of the inherent inequality of the system we live in. So, we throw them in prison where no one has to look at them or think about them.

At this point, what had was not yet slavery, but was simply mass incarceration. The government wasn’t making any money off of these inmates outside of expansion of the Prison-Industrial Complex, which provided a vast infrastructure of jobs and administration, but no real profit. As a matter of fact, we the noble taxpayer are continuing to lose a startling amount of money due to the need for federal and state governments to imprison the multitudes. The average cost for a stint in the big house varies from state to state, with Oklahoma proving the most frugal at around $18.5K a year and Oregon tipping the scales at a monstrous $63.5K annually per inmate. You read that right. An Oregonian could send 7 kids to the University of Oregon for a year for the same price that it costs to imprison a single felon. With California averaging $47K a year for each of their 163,000 inmates, it’s not hard to imagine why the state is staring a $16 billion deficit square in the face.

So, now state and federal governments are in a bind. They can’t afford to house the colossal number of prisoners that they have, but they also can’t change the draconian legislation that they themselves instituted. After all, it is a venal sin to be “soft on crime” in American politics. We are a nation weened on the soothing milk of vigilante justice. Our national motto shouldn’t be E Pluribus Unum or In God We Trust. Our currency should be covered with “Yip-pee Kay-ay Motherf**ker!” or “Go Ahead, Make My Day.” If you say you’re eliminating mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses, you’re letting a bunch of degenerate dopers on the street. Call for rehabilitative services in prisons like literacy and GED/college courses and you’re interfering with the natural course of law & order. Can’t have that in an election year, no sir. Stick the bastards in a corner somewheres and feed them through a slit in their door and hopefully in 10 years they’ll have learned that they’ve been a very bad boy/girl and will never break the law again. Thus, the quandary: can’t live with ’em; can’t live without ’em. Or can they?

Enter the private sector on it’s glistening white stead to save the day. Beginning in the 1980s, private companies began sprouting up who offered to take right good care of the state or federal government’s wards in facilities of their own. It was a gesture of magnanimity and courage for these titans of industry to offer to take in the outcasts of society that they themselves had helped churn out, but evidently their conscience had caught up with them and they felt the need to give back. Who the hell am I kidding? These weren’t non-profits, but were companies designed to make some sweet sweet cash off of the imprisonment of their fellow man. Ain’t democracy grand? Fast forward to the current day and over 8% of all prisoners in the United States are housed in privately run facilities, a number that is sure to rise as state governments continue to make a mess of their finances during this prolonged recession.

It is in this transaction that we see the (re)birth of 21st century slavery. These companies deal in people as commodities. A private prison conglomerate, such as the Corrections Corporation of America, will make a contract with either state or federal officials to take on a set number of prisoners for a set number of years at a pre-determined cost. I feel that this bears repeating: private companies buy human beings from the US government for their own profit. Granted, there is no auction block and guards aren’t “technically” allowed to abuse the inmates, but this is slavery. If you wanted to split hairs, you could call people who had an expected release date indentured servants and those with life sentences slaves, but it doesn’t matter much.

At this point George Will or the rotting corpse of Lou Dobbs might pop up and offer the argument that the private sector is only doing what the public sector did, but better and more efficiently. This stance is patently ridiculous and borderline amoral. Private sector efficacy might be an arguing point when it comes manufacturing ipods or running discount shoe stores, but has no bearing on the rehabilitation of prisoners. This is because the mental health profession/sane people have a different definition of better in this instance. To most of us, better would entail some combination of lower recidivism rates, sound rehabilitative programs and security for both inmates and the communities nearby. To the Corrections Corporation of America, better means only one thing: profitable.

It comes down to basic economic principles. In order for a company to make money they must lower overhead and increase sales. For a correctional facility, lowering overhead means hiring inexperienced non-union workers, hiring fewer of those workers, cutting back on rehabilitative programming and the number of licensed professionals on staff, and reducing the number of amenities to that of a Cambodian work camp. As for increasing sales, that means two things: buying more contracts from the government and keeping your inmates in prison for as long as possible. There is literally no way to effectively combine capitalist economic theory and rehabilitative incarceration. The two are at odds with each other. If a prison is successful, it will have fewer inmates and a lower recidivism rate and, in the eyes of private company that runs it, less profit. It would be like running a hotel in which you had to make money while keeping the number of guests as low as possible. A prison with a flashing No Vacancy sign is not doing its job.

Keeping the hotel analogy running, I want you to imagine the following improbable scenario. You own Best Western or some such thing and a guest comes in one evening with an odd itinerary. The guest states to you that he’s planning on staying anywhere between 3 and 7 days at the hotel, but that it is up to you, the hotel owner, to decide how many of those 3-7 days he will actually be renting a room. Without hesitation, you would opt to have the man stay for the full seven days because only a damned fool would let four days-worth of cash stroll out the door. Now imagine you’re a private prison warden and those 3-7 days are now 3-7 years. What possible incentive could you have to let any prisoner out after they had served their mandatory minimum? If you’re in California, for instance, that’s nearly $200K worth of contract you’re letting go of. It was folly in the 19th century to say that slavery would end of its own accord as plantation owners freed slaves based on an obligation to society and personal freedom. Why would we for a second think that a private business in the 21st would let their captors go on the same basis? If the plantation owner releases the slave, there is no one to tend his crops. If the prison warden releases his prisoners, there is no one to fill his cells, and thus his pocketbook.

There was a recent story out of the Huffington Post detailing a bid by The GEO Group, the 2nd largest private prison operator in the country after CCA, to buy the contracts for the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation. The VCBR is a 300-bed facility that solely houses sex-offenders and, as the name suggests, has a larger than usual focus on mental health treatment. This is bad enough, since the first thing that GEO will do to cut costs is trim down the behavioral treatment aspect of the prison, but it’s not nearly the worst thing…not by a long shot. The 300+ inmates at VCBR are enrolled in a program known as “Civil Commitment”, which ostensibly identifies sexually violent predators based on testing scores and the judgement of the state and attorney general. Once someone has been put into the Civil Commitment program, they no longer are held to the standards of their original sentencing, but are put indefinitely in the care of the state. Whatever vestiges of their constitutional rights that these men and women may have held on to is obliterated upon entry into the VCBR. And, if a private company such as GEO—a company that has a financial stake in seeing that they occupy their cell as long as they have air in their lungs—takes control of such an organization, it’s unlikely that anyone who enters will ever leave.

As a cherry on top of their shit sundae, it has been disclosed that the GEO group was one of the largest single contributors to the successful election campaign of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (Rep). This comes in addition to numerous smaller donations to legislators and a fair amount spent on lobbying efforts. Earlier this year, the CCA sent a letter out to 48 states offering to buy out 20-year long contracts on state prisons, with the condition that said prison keeps at least an 90% occupancy rate throughout the duration of the contract. Eventually there will be a state desperate enough to take the offer and we will have our police force be contractually obligated to arrest and imprison a set number of people every year. Our prisons, already bursting at the seams with the unjustly and wastefully incarcerated will be forced to remain that way so that the shareholders at CCA and Geo Group stock rise.

Everyone, or at least everyone born before 1960, remembers the riots at Attica. Tens of unarmed men—imprisoned men—mainly black men—were killed and injured for demanding the most basic of human rights. The facility held almost twice as many men as it was intended to. Inmates were only allowed one shower per week and one roll of toilet paper a month. They cracked as all men and women who are caged and poked with firebrands eventually do. After that and similar demonstrations across the country, the reins slackened and prisoners began to see educational programs, law libraries and improved conditions. That is all gone now. That burst of outrage has been undone by the advance of oppression which has been so steady that we don’t even notice when it’s moving. They’re prisoners…they deserve what came to them…I hope they lock them up forever! Lest you forget, my Christian nation, the men who were hung beside Christ at Golgatha during the Crucifixion. Christ, himself minutes away from death, pled to God for the men who hung next to him and those that cheered his demise, imploring, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And while one prisoner was unrepentant, the other, a man who would later be given the name of Dismas, rebuked him, saying:

Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art under the same condemnation?

And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds. But this Man hath done nothing amiss.”

And he said unto Jesus, “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom.”

And Jesus said unto him, “Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:40-43)

What Would Jesus Do is often mocked for it’s braceletted evangelism, but it can often be a good test of ethics if used in accordance with the biblical Jesus (as opposed to Joel Osteen’s Jesus that wants everyone to have a McMansion and a Corvette). I don’t know what Christ’s exact actions would have been regarding this issue, but I am damn sure he wouldn’t answer that question by going out and picking up stock in the private-prison-industrial-complex.


Categories: Social Justice

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  1. Virally Suppressed -- Insights and opinions that are a little left of liberal

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