Wednesday, August 19, 2009

More Customers for the Prison Business

I've written in the past about the absolute disaster that our criminal justice is. I'd like to write about the role that private prisons have in this mess.

The United States is far and away the world leader in imprisoning it's citizens. According to Human Rights Watch,

The latest statistics, released last week, show that as of June 30, 2008, more than 2.3 million people were behind bars in this country -- an increase of almost 20 percent just since 2000. This gives the United States an incarceration rate of 762 per 100,000 residents -- the highest rate in the world, dwarfing those of other democracies like Great Britain (152 per 100,000), Canada (116), and Japan (63).

Of course incarceration doesn't affect everyone equally. Black men in the United States are 6.6 times more likely than white men to be incarcerated. More than 10 percent of all black males ages 25 to 39 were in prison or jail as of June 30, 2008. And a 2006 BJS study showed that prisons and jails have become the new asylums, with more than half of all prisoners suffering from mental health problems like major depression and psychotic disorders.

It wasn't always like this. For much of the 20th century, the US incarceration rate remained fairly stable. It began to climb sharply in the late 1970s, as a result of policy changes like mandatory minimum sentencing and the widespread abolition of parole. In the 1980s and 1990s, the "war on drugs" and "three strikes" laws fueled further growth. More people were going to prison, and staying there for longer periods of time. By 2004, the incarcerated population was six times what it had been in 1972.

Here's a visual of that, courtesy of Sen. Jim Webb:

Now, as Human Rights Watch points out, there are a lot of reasons for this increase in prison population. I would submit that at its heart, it's a belief by those in power (read: read rich white people) that most crimes are committed by people who don't look like them, and that the easiest way to deal with this is to just put them in cages.

If you think that our prison population says something good about America, here is Sen. Jim Webb, quoted from a speech on the Senate floor:

There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States;
or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of
criminal justice.

I highly recommend reading this entire speech. It's only a few pages, and I can promise you that it will be more informative than that link to Jon & Kate Plus 8 that you were thinking of hitting up.

What do private prisons have to do with all of this? Private prisons are supposed to be more cost effective, because they are run as for-profit businesses. Leaving aside the fact that they aren't really any cheaper for the taxpayer, let's consider the bigger picture.

How do private companies grow and increase profits? What has every business since the dawn of time tried to do to make more money?

They look for more customers.

When they're convincing people to buy cell phones, or trying to put people on cruise ships, this has a relatively benign effect. But when their growth is predicated on putting more people in jail, their business model becomes far more malignant.

Private prison companies, along with prison guard unions, have a vested financial interest in locking people up. This interest is completely at odds with society's interests. We have reasons to help people with drug problems, for example, so that they can be better, more productive members of society. But private prisons have an interest in just locking people in cages, because they get paid for that. And when, as a result, they become more likely to commit more crimes, they can profit again from imprisoning them a second or third time. Heck, prison growth counts toward GDP!

We should consider high incarceration rates a problem. Prison should be a last resort; it breeds criminals and is, in many cases, simply inhuman. Nothing can make a man more angry and dangerous than society's inhuman indifference to his rights as human being, and if you can't oppose mass imprisonment on moral grounds, than at least on practical terms you must realize what a disaster this has been.

The prison-industrial complex in the United States is appalling and abhorrent. If you claim to celebrate America's supposed dedication to liberty, you should try to reconcile that with our horrendous record on civil rights. A society with over 2 million of its members behind bars can hardly be considered a free country.

1 comment:

  1. Debaters debate the two wars as if Nixon’s civil war on Woodstock Nation didn’t yet run amok. One needn’t travel to China to find indigenous cultures lacking human rights or to Cuba for political prisoners. America leads the world in percentile behind bars, thanks to ongoing persecution of hippies, radicals, and non-whites under banner of the war on drugs. If we’re all about spreading liberty abroad, then why mix the message at home? Peace on the home front would enhance credibility.

    The drug czar’s Rx for prison fodder costs dearly, as lives are flushed down expensive tubes. My shaman’s second opinion is that psychoactive plants are God’s gift. In God’s eyes, it’s all good (Gen.1:12). The administration claims it wants to reduce demand for cartel product, but extraditing Canadian seed vendor Marc Emery increases demand. Mr. Emery enables American farmers to steal cartel customers with superior domestic product.

    The constitutionality of the CSA (Controlled Substances Act of 1970) derives from an interstate commerce clause. This clause is invoked to finance organized crime, endanger homeland security, and throw good money after bad. Official policy is to eradicate, not tax, the number-one cash crop in the land. America rejected prohibition, but it’s back. Apparently, SWAT teams don’t need no stinking amendment.

    Nixon promised the Schafer Commission would support the criminalization of his enemies, but it didn’t. No matter, the witch-hunt was on. No amendments can assure due process under an anti-science law without due process itself. Psychology hailed the breakthrough potential of LSD, until the CSA halted all research. Marijuana has no medical use, period.

    The RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993) allows Native American Church members to eat peyote, which functions like LSD. Americans shouldn’t need a specific church membership to obtain their birthright freedom of religion. Denial of entheogen sacrament to any American, for mediation of communion with his or her maker, precludes the free exercise of religious liberty.

    Freedom of speech presupposes freedom of thought. The Constitution doesn’t enumerate any governmental power to embargo diverse states of mind. How and when did government usurp this power to coerce conformity? The Mayflower sailed to escape coerced conformity. Legislators who would limit cognitive liberty lack jurisdiction.

    Common-law must hold that adults own their bodies. The Founding Fathers decreed that the right to the pursuit of happiness is inalienable. Socrates said to know your self. Lawmakers should not presume to thwart the intelligent design that molecular keys unlock spiritual doors. Persons who appreciate their own free choice of path in life should tolerate seekers’ self-exploration.

    Simple majorities in each house could put repeal of the CSA on the president’s desk. The books have ample law on them without the CSA. The usual caveats remain in effect. You are liable for damages when you screw up. Strong medicine requires prescription. Employees can be fired for poor job performance. No harm, no foul; and no excuse, either. Replace the war on drugs with a frugal, constitutional, science-based drugs policy.