Prisons and profits

The U.S. criminal justice system has transformed into a vast, for-profit, industrial system. Police, lawyers, court staff, convicts and prison personnel make up a giant business complex that scoops up citizens and churns out convicts, generating enormous state and federal budgets and substantial private profits.

With nearly two million incarcerated, the activities of processing, feeding, maintaining, securing and guarding inmates has become a ripe plum for those seeking investment opportunities. One Wall Street Journal writer has described this system as “a financial and political bazaar, with convicts in stripes as the prize.”

But like all profit-driven enterprises, the prison-industrial complex exhibits the irrationalities of competition and the marketplace. A Sept. 6 Wall Street Journal article exposes the collision of reality with capitalism.

In Mississippi, lobbyists for privately administered prisons asked the state to pay millions of dollars for “ghost prisoners.” Despite the decade-long decline in crime, most states have engaged in a frenzy of prison construction and expansion. Fueled by demagogic politicians and sensationalist media, 27 states now have an overcapacity of at least 1 percent. Smelling profits, private companies like Wackenhut and Corrections Corp. of America have accounted for more and more of this growth, today operating about 150 prisons. With cells outstripping prisoners, they are looking for government bailouts.

Such is the legacy of privatization and deregulation. Even the head of Mississippi’s corrections department – a hard-line ex-police chief – is repelled by the for-profit system. Robert Johnson is quoted by The Wall Street Journal as remarking, “The sole focus for many people is economic development: ‘We can make money off of inmates.’... That’s just gotten a little too skewed for my liking.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to recognize what this growing demand for inmates will mean for law enforcement – the supply side of this industry. More and more pressure to arrest and convict will encourage already ruthless police to further brutalize the poor, the rebellious, and especially African Americans. While African Americans make up only 12 percent of the population, they account for 29 percent of all arrests (1999), and a far greater part of the prison population in most states.

Because states often deny the right to vote to convicted felons, 13 percent of adult African-American males were denied the right to cast a ballot in the 2000 elections. This clearly affected the outcome, a result that was not lost on politicians. In some states, 40 percent of adult African Americans are disenfranchised because voting rights are revoked for life. Some might argue that the declining crime rate reflects the massive investment in police, security and prisons over the last two decades.

They might point to the return of capital punishment and stiffer punishments and sentences as causing the decline in crime. But this would be an abuse of logic. The draconian assault on crime did not precede the decline, but ironically coincided with the fall in criminal activity. In other words, the crime-fighting frenzy was intensifying precisely as the threat from crime was easing. The Wall Street Journal concedes this point with the statement: “The introduction of tougher sentencing laws in the 1980s and 1990s drove the prison population up, even as the rate of violent and property crime was falling.”

Crime is almost always rooted in poverty and desperation. It is largely an issue of economic justice. Therefore, it rises or falls with the economic tides. When jobs are more plentiful, crime declines.

When unemployment is on the rise, crime rises as well. In 1991, when the last economic recovery begin, the crime rate began a decade long slide. Now, with the economy slipping, there is an emerging rise in the crime rate. If we want to reverse this development, we must insure work and an adequate standard of living for all.