Posted Friday May 12 2000

Private Prisons as a Growth Industry

Michael Lerner says in his book THE POLITICS OF MEANING that humankind does a disservice to itself when it sets in place a worldwide governance system based solely on competitive profit-making. Under this system, known as globalization, human needs are not viewed as challenges but rather as opportunities for accumulating wealth. A prime example is the privatized prison system, removed from the oversight of government and turned over to private corporations.

These corporations are not concerned about the ethics of incarcerating non-violent offenders for years on end at costs which equal those of prestigious college educations. They are one-dimensional Cyclops whose single eyes see only profit-making possibilities in any situation, even one involving tremendous human suffering.

Despite steadily declining incidents of crime, new prisons continue to be constructed. Some of this increase can be attributed to legislation. "Three strikes" and mandatory minimums (harsh, fixed sentences without parole) are two examples, which eventually must be overturned Many of us grieve over the increase in our prison population which has grown from 500,000 in 1980 to 2 million today. But these numbers only stimulate the corporate hustler to look for all the ways that money can be made off the system.

Private prison maintenance contractors are paid a fixed sum per prisoner which means lower wages for employees, no unions, more overcrowding, fewer services for prisoners, abuses by poorly trained personal and less public scrutiny. Can you imagine what meals must be when a providerís primary concern is profit?

With rural areas suffering from loss of income, many rural residents see the coming of a prison to their community as a source of employment. Rural communities see prisons as a means of enlarging their tax base. Corporations see prisons as profit makers. The investment firm of Smith Barney as well as American Express and General Electric have invested in private prison construction. Subsidiary businesses have been spawned by the private prison industry and armament makers have gotten in on the action. Westinghouse, for example, is now selling the criminal justice system "Night Enforcer" goggles first used in the Gulf War and "Hot Wire" fencing used by NATO.

Communication companies like AT&T, Sprint and MCI gouge prisoners with exorbitant phone calling rates, often 6 times higher than the normal charge. Firms dedicated solely to the prison phone business, provide computerized prison phone systems, fully equipped for surveillance.

More and more prisons charge inmates for basic necessities: medical care, toilet paper, and use of the law library. Many states now charge "room and board." The prisoner must then work to pay his/her upkeep. The result is that while government cannot actually require inmates to work at jobs for less than minimum wage, the inmates are forced to by necessity.

Those industries which employ prisoners often compete with private industry. For example, federal prisoners can be employed by UNICOR which recycles furniture. For a 40-hour week they receive about $40 a month. Small furniture manufacturers complain they are being driven out of business by UNICOR. In Austin, Texas, U.S. Technologies discharged 150 workers when its plant was closed. Six weeks later, the plant reopened in a nearby prison.

The ever-increasing disparity in incomes within the U.S. plays a role in the increasing prison population as the middle-class and poor grow even poorer and observe the great wealth enjoyed by the few, The average worker is working longer hours and for less pay than 20 years ago with the cost of food, housing and health care tremendously increased. Those social service programs designed to ameliorate this situation and the deadening effects of poverty have suffered enormous cuts. In poor urban neighborhoods school buildings are crumbling; after-school programs are being dismantled; libraries, parks and drug treatment centers are closed. All this has been accompanied by the building of 150 new prisons, massive federal allocations to the military and a proliferation of
police stations and police officers.

I cannot end without some message of hope. I believe that there is more discontent with our unjust economic system than at any period during my lifetime. This can be good if the discontent spurs needed change. The demonstrations in Seattle and Washington have brought increased awareness of people worldwide as to the inequities inherent in the World Trade Organization, the IMF and the World Bank, which affect us all. I truly believe that growing numbers of people recognize that consumerism is not something upon which one can build a life, that human relationships must be built on mutual respect and that compassion and generosity are more important than speed boats and million dollar houses. We will have arrived when we empty our prisons of all but violent criminals and institute programs for them that offer humane rehabilitation.

We must build an economic system based on cooperation, compassion, community and a recognition of our obligation to each other including our incarcerated brothers and sisters.

Polly Mann. May 11 2000

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