The Original Think Magazine (Published since 1996)
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Justice, Inc.

American is lost

The year was 1989 when I first became aware of the corporatist take over of the civil functions of government...

That was the year that my eyes were opened to the fact that I was living in a country that was undertaking the most massive effort in the history of the world to lock up a substantial percentage of it's population in an effort to drive corporate profits. Every week more than a thousand of my fellow citizens were being convicted, doomed to spend years laboring for the mega-corps in privately owned "factories with fences" for less than one hour of minimum wage pay for an entire day's work.

On the front pages were stories of more education and Medi-Care budgets being slashed by billions to raise the money in this mad drive to build more and more profit generating prison labor camps. Huge corporations like RCA, TWA and Best Western International scrambles to gobble up as many of these cheap labor contracts as they could while the citizens of the country spent over $15 billion a year just to operate these government detention centers.


Sounds like the plot of a futuristic science-horror novel? Wake up America - the future is now in it's third decade.

As you sit there in the comfort of your home, or the local coffee house reading this article, over one million of your fellow citizens sit in cages funded by your tax dollars. Quickly swallow the lump in your throat and comfort yourself with the reassurance that "those people" belong there and aggressively ignore the fact that the majority of them are there for non-violent offenses, and that 85% of that group are locked up for crimes where there were no victims involved.

When the first George Bush presided over this "Land of the Free", he solemnly pledged to double the number of prisons in this great country, at a cost of unestimated billions. Pushed on by lobbyist money and pressure, law makers and law enforcers began working overtime to ensure that there will be enough 'clients' to fill these mean, gloomy and often brutal warehouses of human misery.

In the General Accounting Office (GAO) report for 1991, it indicated that the only area where the Federal Government made a profit from operations was the $30.8 billion generated from fines for new laws and regulations. This isn't even counting property seizures from drug and prostitution cases, which go directly into the coffers of the arresting agencies, a pay for play system that has corrupted justice systems around the world, nullifying impartiality and entrenching greed and patronage.

When you think about it, with the cold war over, thanks to Osama Bin Ladin and his merry band of bearded Mullahs humiliating and bankrupting the Soviets, why would the government stop crime? The War on Drugs was just getting hot, employing more people than any other profession in the world. From Judges to District Attorneys, sheriffs, police, marshals and correctional officers, court clerks, bondsmen down the line to architectural firms, construction companies, contractors, food and medical service purveyors, manufacturers of security and prison paraphernalia and upon release, probation and parole officers nationwide.

It was telling when one senator from Michigan proudly boasted that prisons and jails are the #1 growth sector In the United States. Employment has grown faster in corrections than any other area of government and to this day, the Correctional Officer's Association is the largest Union contributor to the politicians and law maker, a fact little noted when Republicans rail against Teacher's Unions because they get the bulk of the largesse.

Most states began spending so much on prison construction that it outpaced spending on low-income housing, but perhaps, prisons are the ultimate in low-income housing for the New World Order.

One unchanged historical reality about the American prison system is that the people locked up in them come predominantly from the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. No one can deny the simple truth that America's prisons incarcerate a disproportionate number of the poor, black citizens, just look at the statistics. White Americans are imprisoned at a rate of 114 per 100,000, but Afro-Americans are locked up at a rate of well over 700 per 100,000. The Black imprisonment rate in the U.S. is the highest in the world. In fact, blacks in America go to prison more often than blacks in South Africa.

Don't rest comfortably on color lines, around 1980, only the Soviet and China imprisoned a larger portion of their people than the US, and held the record for many years, a potent rallying cry against Communistic Statism. But by 1990, this is no longer true.

The American incarceration rate per 100,000 was only 79 in 1925. By 1980 it was 179, increasing in 1985 to 201, in 1992 hovering around 300. The U.S. incarceration rate on June 30, 2009 was 748 inmates per 100,000. That is more than seven times the rate in most European nations, about 100 per. Just 35-years ago the populations of our prisons was about 200,000. Today it has exceeded the one million mark. That number is currently growing 50,000 more people a year. For comprehensive stats, visit:

What is this costing us as a nation and why are more Americans going to prison?

The answer to the first part of that question is $40 billion a year. Which also happens to be the answer to the latter as well.

One of the main reasons for the prison population explosion has little to do with an increase in lawlessness. As the ruling elites seek to control the populace from ejecting them from power, they create more and more laws that restrict our freedoms and rights. This was foreseen by the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson himself having said famously that the citizens of the United States won't lose their rights in one big bang, but will gladly give them up one by one.

So in the name of public safety, (with lots of prodding and lobbying by the Prison Industrial Complex), Congress and the State Legislators passed more and more laws in an effort to increase the incarceration rate, to "be tough on crime". The truth is that crime rates have nothing to do with incarceration rates. If stiffer sentences and more prisons stopped crime, then by 2011 we should have no crime at all. But America still has one of the highest crime rates in the world! Judges hand down longer sentences because they perceive a public demand for them. Also following this reasoning they are sending people to prison for crimes, which in the past, didn't merit incarceration.

The National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice and Goals reported that "...prisons fail to reduce crime, succeed in punishing but not deterring criminals, provide only temporary protection to the community, and change the offender, but mostly for the worst."

Yet we keep on building them, and then we fill them faster than we can build still more. And what does this cost us?

Bureau of Justice Statistics estimate that just one (1) cell alone costs $100,000 to build (actual cost being over $200,000 over 25 years with interest on the construction debt) and approximately $15,200 to $20,000 to house a prisoner there for one year plus another $20,000 in staffing costs. And with the prison population increasing at ten times the rate of the general population you can see why prisons are becoming big business.

J. Michael Quinlan, Director of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) noted that to just keep pace with the 1990's incarceration rate, 400 new beds were needed each week. That amounts to twelve new 400-bed prisons each month. He also doubted that once underway, with an increasingly contentious political climate, that the crowding of jails was just going to get worse, court orders or not. With the average jail costing $70 million to build, more and more state budgets were being eaten away by the drive to take society's undesirables and lock, them up and throw away the key. These cost are a major reason why many states are cutting essential services budgets, the bill is due for this early 90s prison building spree.

prison laborThat was when the United States went on a prison-building program unparalleled in mankind's history. It took just one-decade for incarceration rates to increase 100%, while at the same time state outlays for prison construction rose 600%. The state of Georgia was #1 in new construction and California's in second place with 21 facilities built. In 1989 the Georgia Legislature discussed plans to remove $41 million from the state's Education and Medical budget and apply it towards correctional facilities.

Also In 1989 the California Department of Corrections had cost overruns of $25 million. That year the University of California was asked to absorb a $25 million cut in its budget. The recent tuition increases will go directly into the state's General Revenue Fund, which is then used to finance off-the-balance-sheet costs of new prisons, effectively hiding from voters the huge debts incurred, and ensuring no students brave enough for a London style riot.

All this goes on, while the majority of Americans surveyed don't even want new jails built. In November of 1990 California residents voted against further prison construction, and in 1991 the State's constitution was upheld, prohibiting lawmakers from illegally taxing the citizenry for jail funds, over $300 million which was collected and ordered returned.

One way of getting around the Joe Citizen's okay for building and running jails is to hire private companies, because that money comes from General Revenues and not bond measures which require voter approval.

There are now dozens of entrenched firms in the 'prison market', and in most jurisdictions have the most control over the levers of jurisprudence. Quite a distance traveled from when back in 1985 the Corrections Corporation of America made a bid to take over the entire Tennessee Prison System. That bid failed, but it didn't stop them from expanding in other directions such as Federal Bureau of Prisons Halfway Houses, Immigration and Naturalization Detention Facilities and a notoriously brutal maximum-security jail in Bay County, Florida.

Ted Nissen, a lock ‘em up booster and President of Behavioral Systems Southwest said tellingly, "Government's system is very effective at locking people up, but there's no profit and no motivation." Using logic like this, more and more corporations are investing into the privatization of America's penal systems.

In addition to building and running prisons, international companies favor private prisons as the ideal captive consumer market. At some U.S. jails, Nutraloaf provides the meals, while inmates shampoo using Vidal Sasoon. The Campbell Soup Company has claimed that ‘the American prison system is the fastest growing market for private food service companies'.

resist the corporationsBeyond the moral questions of whether the government's responsibility to govern ends at the prison gates or if it is even ethical to profit from the misfortunes of criminals and their victims, you must ask yourself, "How do these private companies manage compared to state run institutions?"

They stink.

Prison reform advocate Jerome Miller was quoted in a conversation as saying, "One of the biggest problems with the current correctional facilities is the unaccountability that pervades the state system, and I don't see that problem being alleviated by private industry. The incentive will be to build bigger and bigger facilities; which is in direct contradiction to all evidence concerning correctional facilities, and lock up more and more people. We are already locking up far too many people. I fear we could end up with a situation in which corporate America locks up the poor for profit."

It is to the advantage of such corporations for the incarceration rate to remain high because their profits depend on how many inmates they can fill their jails with and the incentive will be to keep them there for as long as possible. Most of the contracts between our government and the corporations include a clause that guarantees the state will supply them with a minimum number of inmates. And what reason is there to lower population rates? None.

Michael J. Mahoney, Director of the John Howard Association argued in Corrections Today Magazine about evidence that the corporations have exerted political pressure to keep the jails filled to maximum capacity. Some proponents express hope that privatization creates a legislative climate more receptive to the production and sale of prison-made goods. Owners of private jails have incentives (tax-free cheap labor) to build and sell inmate-made goods, and are actively seeking to persuade lawmakers to authorize prison industry as a cost saving measure and to help finance efforts to turn prisons and jails into what Chief justice Warren Burger called "factories with fences."

In 1985 Chief Justice Burger, commenting on the multi-billion dollar prison boom, said that "It is Imperative that there be new standards that include the following:

  • The conversions of prisons ... into factories and shops for the production of goods.
  • The repeal of all statutes that limit the amount of prison industry production.
  • The repeal of all laws discriminating against the sale or transportation of prison made goods.
  • The cooperation and active participation of business and organized labor leaders in programs to permit the wider use of productive facilities in prisons.

He then goes on to sum up his vision of a future in which half of America's prison population will be working within ten years.

It is almost impossible to believe that these statements have issued forth during a period of time when the Bush administration was calling for a boycott of products produced by prison labor in China. Maybe it's to clear the way for American prison goods. Remember that next time you're told to buy American.

It would be understandable if it were only private companies racing to cash in on the profits to be made, but sadly this is not true. Some counties are building jails far larger than they need in hopes of renting out space to jurisdictions that are over crowded. Washington D.C. has been sending prisoners by the hundred to county jails in states like Nevada and Washington.

San Diego was banking on the leasing of prison cells to the federal government and Orange County to get funds to build and operate more jails. In order to create the need they packed the jails beyond capacity until they were dangerously full and then cried that they needed more jails. This amounts to profiteering. Imprisoning citizens for revenue is not a legitimate government function.

The National Institute of Justice, a branch of the US. Department of Justice publishes periodical construction bulletins. One declared that prisons provide "a recession proof economic base" for local economies with high unemployment rates. Is this the answer for a sluggish economy? Divide the population in half and pay one group to build jails and imprison the other half? I think not. But that is the thinking of despots like Dick Cheney, currently under Grand Jury indictment for the human right's abuses by his Vanguard Group, whichholds interests in many private prison companies running the federal detention centers.

But what can be done? The problem is not a lack of prison space, but whom we put into these prisons. Everyone knows prisons are needed to confine violent and dangerous criminals, but about 75% of the people in prison are there for nonviolent offenses, the majority of which are intoxication and drug violations.

Even many prison administrators don't believe very many of their inmates belong behind bars. Arnold Pontesso, a former Federal Warden and director of the Oklahoma correctional system, including it's parole and probation departments, has gone on the record as saying that while there are certain offenders that must be locked up, only about five per cent of current inmates belong in custody. Definitely, he adds, nobody whose offense was non-violent should be incarcerated.

Jessica Mitford, author of Kind and Usual Punishment found that "Even the toughest wardens of the roughest prisons will quote some such figure off the records. Some where between 10% and 25% of 'hard-core' criminals are 'too dangerous to be loosed on society'" This was echoed by Ron Goldfarb and Linda Singer in their research for After Conviction. Most Wardens agree that only about 10 to 15 per cent of their inmates are a danger to the public.

So why are so many people being locked up?

Well, definitely economics play a part. Elected officials need to keep taxes high to justify spending the billions that they do. Certainly they are trying to keep a potentially riotous citizenry too fearful to bring about change in the government and this they do by playing on the fears of the upper-middle class and the senior citizens who vote. The more people they bring under their judicial jurisdiction the tighter the grip they'll have on society and the more fines they can collect.

The administration of prisons and jails involves the legally sanctioned exercise of coercion by certain citizens over others. We are most likely to improve our country's penal systems if we approach them not as private enterprises to be run in the pursuit of corporate profits, but as public trusts administered by the community and in the name of civility and justice. With so many Americans now under the control of the Justice Dept. the real question to ask is whether imprisoning this many people is a good use of 40 billion tax dollars a year, or is there is a cheaper way to keep crime rates low?

Maybe it's time to progress a little bit and stop trying to hide societies ills in corporate profit centers before the whole country is imprisoned. For George Bernard Shaw once wryly said, "As long as there are prisons, it matters little which of us occupy the cells."

Updated from an article published in Sin Magazine. Text and photos by J. Benet, clothing from Behind the Post Office