U.$. PRISONS Mean Money.
The United States now has more people in prison per capita than any other country in the world. According to "For Justice Against Prison" in the March 2000 issue of Z Magazine, "U.S. citizens constitute 5 percent of the global population. U.S. inmates constitute 25 percent of the world's prisoners." California alone has the largest prison system in the world.
With close to two million people behind bars throughout the country, there is quite a bit of money to be made from the U.S. prison industry. In fact, the prison industry is the second fastest growing industry in the nation, second only to casinos. While it is easy for the average citizen to recognize why casino growth is so rapid ("the house always wins!"), it isn't quite so apparent to them why prison growth is almost as tremendous. The answer, however, is the same: money. Wall Street is drooling over the prison-industrial complex.
The prison-industrial complex is a term coined from the infamous military-industrial complex--a name that originated during World War II, referring to the enormous amounts of money spent and made in the name of building the biggest war machine ever assembled. While the military-industrial complex still exists, with companies like Lockheed Martin reaping the benefits of huge government contracts to build weapons of mass destruction, the government doesn't spend taxpayer money to build defense on the same scale as it once did during the heyday of the Cold War. Instead, much of that taxpayer cash now flows into the prison-industrial complex.
The prison-industrial complex perpetuates itself. It is those who make the laws to put more and more people in jail who have the most to lose if the system slows down. Politicians, who receive millions in campaign contributions from companies making millions off the prison-industrial complex, create the laws that are becoming less and less lenient. Many concerned citizens are taking notice of the United States' penal system, but not enough of the body politic are hearing the truth.
In November 1999, thousands of protestors descended upon Seattle, Washington, to voice their displeasure with the World Trade Organization (WTO) as the economic leaders of the world met to discuss the progress of "free trade" and the global market. In April 2000, some of the same protestors marched against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington, D.C., as these groups' leaders assembled. Curiously, most of the protesters were white, middle-class Americans protesting on behalf of the world's poor and disadvantaged--the very people most adversely affected by the WTO and IMF policies.
These policies which benefit multinational corporations, however, affect more than just the starving from developing nations; they also affect people in the United States. Producer Michael Moore documented the effects of such policies on the lives of working-class U.S. citizens in his movie The Big One, in which he details the repercussions of corporate downsizing. What happens to people who don't have jobs? Many of them are a part of the rapidly increasing prison population. And that population grows in large part because of the process of globalization--a process either championed or damned around the world.
Globalization is the process in which economic borders disappear for multinational corporations--achieved through the aforementioned policies of the WTO, IMF, and World Bank, all of which are dominated by the United States and other rich countries of the world.
Examine, for instance, the North American Free Trade Ageement. Thanks to NAFTA, signed into effect on January 1, 1994, by President Bill Clinton, U.S. corporations can legally move their factories to Mexico, where minimum wage laws are nonexistent. The agreement wouldn't be so bad if it allowed Mexican citizens the same kind of economic mobility across borders. Unfortunately, most Mexican immigrants in the United States are still considered illegal aliens. To simplify this, capital and money don't observe borders, but people still do. People can be considered illegal if on the wrong side of the border, yet money can move easily. Globalization is all about maximizing corporate profits, and the growing U.S. prison-industrial complex is a part of that equation.
Much like the NAFTA situation, corporations have no boundaries when it comes to prisons, moving products and labor across jail bars without government interference. Capitalists call it free trade, but there is nothing free about it. The people behind the bars--the people treated much like livestock while Wall Street profits from their suffering--obviously have no mobility. Inmates are rapidly losing any future freedom they might have. Tough-on-crime politicians are enacting laws such as "three strikes and you're out," which puts people in jail for life with no possibility of parole after their third conviction, regardless of the infraction. For example, Landa Rene is in jail for life in California for the heinous crime of stealing a spare tire (California case #VA048627). Parole is becoming less and less likely as parole boards are increasingly being stocked with "tough-on-crime" types. And all of this is taking place for the purpose of making a buck.
While money has been established as the driving force of the prison-industrial system, the question remains: how is money made from it? When an industry makes money, it holds trade shows. In August 1999, the five-day Congress of Correction chose Denver, Colorado, to host a trade show for the growing number of businesses within the prison industry. It was a great choice: State Department of Corrections Chief John Suthers greeted the attendees by bragging that Colorado's Freemont County "proudly calls itself the corrections capital of America" due to the nine state lockups and four federal prisons within county borders.
One of the ways in which money keeps the prison-industrial system moving is the invention of products designed to keep interaction between dangerous criminals and corrections officers to a minimum. The very controversial restraint chair, for example, is a hot-selling item. This chair, intended to restrain prisoners, has often led to torture and even death. According to Anne-Marie Cusac in the April 2000 Progressive, "at least eleven people have died under questionable circumstances after being strapped into a restraint chair." Yet they continue to sell like hotcakes. Companies like KLK, Inc., continue to reap huge profits from the marketing and sales of such devices. The KLK chair sells for $2,290 plus a $190 crating charge, and is being bought all over the country by county jails, as well as state prisons, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Forest Service, and even the Park Service.
A popular item sold at the Denver corrections convention was a hood marketed to keep prisoners who are handcuffed or otherwise restrained from spitting on or biting officers. The brochure for one of these items--the Tranzport Hood--details how the hood can reduce the chance of contracting AIDS, hepatitis, and other viruses. It sells for only $3.75 and is advertised as "the fast, easy, inexpensive way to protect you and your fellow officers from possible illnesses and the uncomfortable feeling of being spit on."
Gear such as the restraint chair and the spit hood are only two examples of how people are profiting on the captive market. Restraint and bodily fluids are only a couple of the problems that stem from the growing prison population. In addition, the United States' jails must find a way to feed, clothe, house, and administer health care to the inmates.
At the convention, savvy entrepreneurs hawked everything from body cavity probes to inmate phone services. And nothing is marked up for inmates as much as phone services. Most inmates only make collect phone calls, and these calls cost four to five times the price of a collect call on the outside. Colorado prisons have a contract with MCI, and each collect call made from the prison incurs a $3.50 surcharge. The economic situations of most inmate families are horrible; yet if increased profits by corporations like MCI are possible, then the finances of inmate families are deemed unimportant. Problems within the prison-industrial complex are viewed as opportunities by the private sector.
Privatization is the catchword that fuels the fire of prison growth. All of the gadgets, service plans, and construction contracts are being sold to private industry. Right-wing think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation, and its puppet politicians, such as Colorado Governor Bill Owens, are pushing the private sector to take control of services traditionally owned by the public.
Prisons and schools are prime examples of services that should be owned by taxpayers. But Owens' latest education plan will turn many of the poorer schools in Colorado into privately owned charter schools. Private companies only venture into a market if there is wealth to be accumulated. It is extremely difficult to defend the idea of for-profit schools; it defeats the purpose. However idealistic this may sound, schools should be the last bastion of free thought--minus the coercion of corporations--a coercion that has entered every other aspect of our lives.
Similarly, it is also very difficult to defend for-profit prisons. The prison-industrial system grows like a weed, unchecked, with a mind of its own. One of its sources of origin is the growing private prison industry. A large percentage of new prisons being built are private institutions run by private corporations. The argument justifying such development is that these institutions are more cost-effective.
Private prisons receive a certain amount of money per prisoner, per day. For example, the Colorado Department of Corrections pays private corporations $50 per inmate per day--making it a formidable cash cow. The prisons are allowed to determine how the funds are spent, inviting serious problems to occur. After all, private prisons are in business to make money, and Wall Street loves its private prison corporations because a lot of revenue is coming in. These prisons often take the money from the state and cut as many corners as possible in order to maximize profits. Sometimes this translates into human rights violations. Private prisons are expected to follow the same laws which govern state and federal prisons, but abuses occur at higher rates in private prisons.
The private sector now manages 112,000 beds in prison, according to one of the leading industry websites. The largest of these private prison corporations is Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which manages over half of all private prison beds. CCA is a Fortune 500 company. According to CCA's official wesite, its "mission is to provide quality corrections at less cost to the taxpayer, in partnership with government." While this sounds like an excellent concept, in practice CCA and its prisons are much different.
A CCA prison in Colorado has been under close scrutiny for negligent behavior and gross human rights violations. The Kit Carson Correctional Center on the outskirts of Burlington, Colorado, opened in December 1998 as a CCA prison. According to Alan Prendergast in "McPrison" (published September 30, 1999, in the online magazine' Westward), "Complaints about brutality and erratic management have been filtering out of Burlington ever since the prison opened."
Some of the complaints were allegations of sexual misconduct and the smuggling of contraband by staff. Burlington is a small town on the Nebraska/Kansas border that, like so many other small U.S. towns, had dried up economically. This is how and why prisons are booming businesses to such places. Burlington once thrived on crops. Now it stays alive by housing human livestock. The town welcomed CCA and its prison with the hope of millions of dollars in taxes to the town and the promise of hundreds of jobs for its residents. CCA took townies who were previously making minimum wage at the local fast-food establishments and almost overnight--after a mere three-week training course--placed them in prison among longtime convicts and paid them eight dollars an hour as corrections officers.
While the pay rate was more than most of these newly anointed officers had made before, it still wasn't great. Corrections officers at state-run prisons earn far more and are much better trained. So the opportunity to make extra money proved too tempting for some of the Burlington guards. One woman was fired for prostitution, and many other guards were fired or suspended for smuggling contraband. This was just the beginning of the abuses--some of which are repeated over and over again within the private prison industry.
Unprofessional, underpaid overseers of longtime convicts hardened by years in the system make for a bad combination. Eyewitness reports out of Kit Carson detail how officers repeatedly beat an already injured prisoner restrained on a gurney. "You could see his body jumping off the gurney when they were hitting him," said Grace Arragon, who observed the abuse while waiting to visit her son. "They were waiting for an ambulance to take him away. If they were giving him medical attention, that was the worst kind I have ever seen."
Some of these same types of problems have been recorded at another of CCA's locations, this one in Youngstown, Ohio. In Mother Jones' May/June 2000 cover story, "Steeltown Lockdown," Barry Yeoman details "how one corporation is turning a rusting steel town into the private prison capital of the world." The same patterns of neglect exhibited in Burlington are apparent at Youngstown. Since it opened the prison in 1997, CCA has repeatedly demonstrated the dangers of prisons-for-profit. As in Burlington, the company staffed the prison with inexperienced guards, then, as trend dictates, filled its cells with 1,700 of the most violent inmates from Washington, D.C., to ever occupy a medium-security prison.
These small towns across the country which are housing the prison boom are predominantly white and rural, while most of the inmates being shipped to their prisons are people of color from urban areas. Black or Latino inmates from the ghettos of some of the largest cities are extremely alien to small-town white prison guards. So one Of the ways the undertrained officers learn to deal with the inmates is to use force.
When the Youngstown facility opened, metal equipment had been left everywhere within the prison walls. All of it was quickly fashioned into weapons, and during the first year alone twenty inmates were stabbed. The guards responded by using tear gas and humiliation. "Knowing what I know now," Youngstown Mayor George McKelvey told reporters, "I would never have allowed CCA to build a prison here."
Other small towns should heed his warning. Unfortunately, as factories move south of the U.S. border, Middle America needs jobs, and new prisons offer the economic boost that these small towns are looking for. It is unfortunate that the imprisonment of more and more people for less and less violent crimes is society's answer to high unemployment.
Corrections Corporation of America also makes money by transporting inmates. TransCor America, Inc., is a subsidiary of CCA and is in the profitable business of transporting inmates from one facility to another. As is the case with its private prisons, many abuses have been reported as occurring on these road trips. In order to squeeze out as much profit as it can, TransCor seats as many prisoners on its buses as possible. Sometimes a prisoner will spend ten days nonstop on a bus waiting for TransCor to travel across the country to fill its seats.
TransCor controls 80 percent of the inmate transport market, moving over 75,000 prisoners around the country every year. According to Vince Beiser's article "Interstate Inmates," in the May/June 2000 Mother Jones, at least twenty-five convicts have escaped from TransCor buses, and the firm currently faces lawsuits from female convicts in Colorado and Texas for abuse and sexual misconduct by drivers and guards. Once again, profit overrides human rights. Unfortunately, TransCor and CCA haven't made it clear how the abuse of inmates affects stock prices.
The process of globalization is all about seeking out cheap labor. Unfortunately for its corporations, the United States has labor regulations like the minimum-wage and child-labor laws. The cheapest labor is not to be found in the United States; it is found south of the border in Mexico or across the Pacific in countries like Indonesia.
Fortunately for its corporations, the criminal justice system is now supplying the United States with cheap and unregulated labor. MCI hires inmates as telemarketers in Colorado. Microsoft hires inmates to package software in Oregon and Washington. TWA hires inmates in California for its customer service department. The list goes on.
Clothing manufacturer CMT Blues runs its factory out of the maximum security Richard J. Donovan State Correctional Facility outside of San Diego, California. The hired inmates sew shirts for several U.S. companies. The jobs, which on the outside would pay much higher, only offer minimum wage. Of that, the inmates pocket less than half; the rest goes to the state to help reimburse expenses incurred by incarceration or to mandatory savings funds. But many of the inmates will be in prison for life, so neither they nor their families will ever be able to touch those funds, which will go right back into the system.
Some might question why inmates are paid at all. However, if corporations are going to profit and law-abiding citizens are losing jobs, the people doing the labor should somehow benefit. Besides, if it weren't for the lack of jobs on the outside, many of these inmates wouldn't be in prison. Unemployment stimulates activity that tends to land poor people in prison.
At the CMT prison factory, sweatshop conditions have been reported, and inmates known to have made these reports have received retribution from guards. Also, workers have noted instances of inmates being told to replace "Made in Honduras" tags with "Made in America" tags in order to defraud customers. Because most of the prisoners are African American or other ethnic minorities, this situation is very similar to the slavery that was legal in this country just a short 135 years ago. Indeed, some of the same justifications are made for prison labor as were made for slavery: "They are better off," "They deserve it," "They aren't meant to be free," and "They wouldn't know what to do with their freedom."
The United States has the largest and fastest growing prison population in the world, and money drives this damaging trend. Poor and minority people are the ones getting the shaft. Nonviolent drug users in poor and ethnic neighborhoods are targeted by the "War on Drugs," which is responsible for a large percentage of prison population growth. When George W. Bush began his term as governor in Texas, there were 41,000 people in prison. Now there are 150,000 people, most of them minorities. He is the prime example of a tough-on-crime politician who wins elections because false solutions are the only solutions his voters hear about.
An African American friend of mine told me "one-third of black men eighteen to thirty years old are in prison." This is today's societal solution to racism. Lock away the problem. Lock away those who might indict a system of inequality. Lock away those who would scream for a fair distribution of wealth. Lock away the faces of color that have been forgotten--those which could testify to the apartheid that quietly flourishes in the United States, the same kind of apartheid that the world declared inhumane when it existed in South Africa.
Money is a powerful incentive. It motivates pharmaceutical companies to deny millions of Africans AIDS medicine. It motivates CEOs to fire thousands of workers to raise the value of their stock options. And now money motivates the United States to keep millions behind bars, regardless of the crimes committed, regardless of the inhumanity, and regardless of the overall damage to entire communities. The prison-industrial system is rampant and must be stopped. Americans need to know how money perpetuates a system that is destroying our society. We need to make the connection: U.S. prisons mean money.
Andrew Hartman teaches social studies at Thornton High School in Denver, Colorado.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2000|
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