Saturday, March 03, 2007

Does Anyone Care About America's Prison Industrial Complex?

Citizens across the political spectrum are preoccupied by numerous high stakes issues such as Iraq, Afghanistan, corruption, corporatist greed, genocide, global warming and healthcare to name a few. There is also the ongoing rule of an administration subverting the Constitution and undermining our democracy. As a result, some topics of importance have dropped off our radar screens. One subject meriting renewed scrutiny is the prison industrial complex.

The prison industrial complex are entities or organizations that have a stake in construction of correctional facilities, such as prison guard unions, construction companies and vendors specializing in surveillance technology. Just as sectors in the military industrial complex are more concerned with profit than national security, players inside the prison industrial complex are more concerned about making money than actually rehabilitating criminals or reducing crime rates.

It should also be noted that some prisons supply free or low cost labor for state and municipal governments as well as jobs for organized labor. The building and maintenance of America’s prison system on both the federal and state level is a multi-billion dollar industry benefiting private industry, lobbyists and politicians who have the power to award contracts.

In December 1998, Eric Schlosser wrote perhaps the definitive article on the topic for The Atlantic Monthly (subscription required) and observed,

"The prison-industrial complex is not only a set of interest groups and institutions. It is also a state of mind. The lure of big money is corrupting the nation's criminal-justice system, replacing notions of safety and public service with a drive for higher profits. The eagerness of elected officials to pass tough-on-crime legislation — combined with their unwillingness to disclose the external and social costs of these laws — has encouraged all sorts of financial improprieties."
Ultimately, the incarceration industry helped keep much of American society, especially young black men, in a cycle of despair. For example, my home state of New York operated under the Rockefeller Drug laws for over thirty plus years and incarcerated non-violent offenders of drug possession for ridiculously long sentences. Meanwhile, more violent criminals were paroled and their recidivism rates were high.

Sadly, in New York the issue remained largely un-addressed as Governor Mario Cuomo fed the correctional facilities construction beast with more money and contracts. His successor, George Pataki promised to repeal the Rockefeller laws when he took office in 1994 but he didn’t deliver until 2004.

The issue seemed to peak politically during the last years of the Clinton Administration as Schlosser’s article helped garner coverage for public figures who spoke about it such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Since then some organized opposition emerged. A political interest group called Critical Resistance formed to raise public awareness about moral failures in the corrections industry and,

“build an international movement to end the Prison Industrial Complex by challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe. We believe that basic necessities such as food, shelter, and freedom are what really make our communities secure.”
Two states worth watching are California and New York. On February 19th, Neal Peirce of the Hampshire Gazette profiled both states in his article, “Growth of the US Prison Industry.” His article was posted in the The Real Cost of Prisons Weblog.

Peirce reports that Governor Eliot Spitzer wants a commission to consider the merits of closing some of New York State’s dozens of prisons. This was also covered on February 5th in the New York Times (subscription required). New York's prison population peaked at 71,000 inmates in 1999 but has dropped by 8,000 the past eight years.

Crime reduction in New York City is the major cause as well as reform efforts to find treatment for non-violent offenders. No doubt the corrections industry will lobby Albany hard to maintain the status quo but Spitzer has demonstrated his fondness for picking fights.

Meanwhile, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is pressing for $11 billion in bonds to add 78,000 beds to California's expanding prison population. Currently, California has 173,000 inmates costing the Sunshine state $8 billion. Peirce quotes a California senior prison official warning that overcrowding and threats of riots are,

"an imminent and substantial threat to the public.''
Peirce also notes that,

“Thirty years ago California's prison system was hailed as America's best, providing education and psychotherapy for offenders.”
Critical Resistance posted the following about California on their website in January:

”Dear Friends,

Last year, we helped defeat plans to build 140,000 new prison and jail cells. While we have collectively made it very difficult for the state to build entirely new large state prisons, the Governor has responded by couching prison expansion in the guise of prison reform. But, we know that expansion is NOT reform. We know that reform lies in reducing the number of people in prison. So, we are back. This time fighting the Governor's plan to build 78,000 new prison, jail and juvenile detention beds and once again, we need you.

The more we make expansion impossible, the closer we get to real moves to reduce the number of people in prison!”
New York of course endured the shameful Attica prison riot of 1971 that resulted in the aforementioned Rockefeller drug laws. The legacy of those laws, widely replicated in other states, were expanding prison populations for possessing or selling even small amounts of narcotics.

Thankfully, Governor Spitzer appears determined to aggressively reform New York’s correction system. However, many communities have an economic interest in preserving the status quo. As State Sen. Elizabeth Little, whose Adirondacks district includes 12 prisons told the New York Times,

"There are over 5,000 corrections officers living in my district. In most of these communities, the prisons are the biggest employer.''
Left unsaid by too many legislators such as State Senator Little and other politicians, is that white constituents are benefiting from union jobs while minorities are incarcerated with punishments not appropriate to the crimes or offenses committed. This is not justice and reflects badly on our national character. One governor, even in a state as large as New York isn't enough. This issue merits activism among civil libertarians across the political spectrum. Does anybody care?
ADDENDUM: A crossposting of the above topic made the recommended list on Daily Kos. Click here to review comments from that community. Also, my thanks to Blue Gal for linking this post in the Crooks & Liars blog roundup.


Aaron said...

Congrats on making the Rec list over at Daily Kos. Just thought I would leave the praise here on your own site.

Great diary.

I am wondering how long does it usually take you to do a diary of this magnitude and where do you come up with the ideas?

Nelson said...

This really is an issue that needs more attention. And as you stated, the war on terrorism has turned our attention to wars of agression and wars on our civil liberties.

Reform has to come from the grassroots, because the public at large in bombarded with images of crime and violence and politicians only play to those fears. If they don't then they are "soft" on crime and want to help "bad" people.

Capt. Jean-Luc Pikachu said...

If you have a chance, read Steve Olsen's Why I'm no longer a Republican. Everyone is A-OK w/ the War on Drugs and loves getting "tough" on crime... until the consequences hit someone they know. THEN, all of a sudden, they want compassion and understanding.

ljm has it right, things will change when we can control our own fear.

Flywheel said...

Hooray for ILJ.
I got here from Crooks and Liars and couldn't wait to see what was up.
I was a prisoner in one of these "MacPrisons" back a ways and it was corrupt in the way of a Burt Reynolds movie.
Little or no medical care, NO dental care, ignorant guards who thought we all had it easy and they had to go to work.
We were, in fact, the "poor people" of the town where the prison was located, as we were fed USDA commodities meant for the underprivileged.
I am still so angry 17 years later that it gets my guts churned up just to ponder it.
Do you remember the scene in "Stalag 17" where the Red Cross man was inspecting the living conditions accompanied by the Commandant?
Well, the same thing happened for us every couple of months. The Bureau of Prisons guy would come around and ask us how we were being treated all while he was accompanied by a couple of guards and the warden. "Yes sir! I love it here. If it wasn't for the lack of sex I might just stay here forever."
But of course, the redneck and the neocon are impervious to irony.

Anonymous said...

I worked at a prison for three years...The money generated by inmate labor is huge...
Industry employees make up in the hundred thousand dollars a year salary...The inmates get a buck a day...I'm sure the prison makes a huge profit...

Anonymous said...

Capt. Jean-Luc Pikachu,

I am the the blogger you reference in your comment. And I wish to clarify my history. I was NEVER a proponent of the drug war. In fact I have ALWAYS said we should end sentencing non-violent offenders to prison.

I quit mainstream politics because no one in either major party was listening.

My nephews story was the final blow ending years of beating my head against the wall.

If afraid all you folks working within the Democrat Party are going to find the same wall. I used to believe in changing the parties from within the parties, but after years I believe it is futile. It's like trying to fix the school system. Every new fix makes the monster bigger and uglier.

Today I believe we need something new. Something that replaces these corrupt parties. Leave them and let them starve.

In the private sector massive corporations have been wiped out or transformed by by energetic new innovators. If you had tried to change IBM from the inside you would have failed. But Micheal Dell forced them to change in less than a decade. They had to change to survive. Why did they change? Micheal Dell offered IBMs customers a better choice.

You may not agree, and that's okay. I wish you the best of luck anyway. I hope you guys can end this insane drug war.