So I finally got the real deal prison uniform. I actually found a jail supply here locally. Who knew? And when I was in there yesterday afternoon to pick up my new duds, the office was hopping. Several employees were buzzing around, taking phone calls, shuffling large stacks of invoices, and keeping the incarceration machine running with some of the necessary parts. I don’t begrudge this company for their business, but this experience did make me think about the economics of the mass incarceration system.
Prisons are big business, and there now exists a growing move across the country to privatize prisons. Several private prison corporations are now listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Yes, you can now invest in the unprecedented mass incarceration and subjugation of millions of your neighbors. Along with many other wealthy, powerful people, including former vice president Dick Cheney, who have invested millions in private prisons, you can make some big bucks on the back of a broken man or woman in a system that incentivizes continual mass incarceration and perpetuates institutional racism.
The largest private prison company in America, Corrections Corporation of America, sent a letter to the governors of 48 states making an offer to buy their state-run prisons in exchange for a guarantee that the states would keep the prisons filled to at least 90% capacity for the length of the agreement. *see the letter here and an ACLU response letter here. Currently, several states have privatized their prison systems and have guarantees to keep them at 95-100% capacity. *Listen here to more of this discussion on privatization and mass incarceration from a Moyers and Company broadcast with guest Michelle Alexander (privatization discussion around minute 28, but the whole thing is worth your time).
That’s just sick. And it doesn’t work. Studies have shown that greater incarceration rates actually lead to increased crime rates. This paradox is due largely to the devastation of cities, communities, and families — mostly of color and lower socioeconomic status — and the state of desperation that lasts for an individual’s lifetime once stigmatized and legally discriminated against. And the economic incentives to keep up this devastation and desperation are deeply, deeply imbedded in our society. The justice system employed almost 2.4 million in 2003. Prison profiteers also include phone companies that gouge families of prisoners by charging them exorbitant amounts to communicate with loved ones; manufacturers of Taser guns, rifles, pistols, and other jail/prison supplies; private healthcare providers who typically provide abysmal healthcare to prisoners; corporations and the U.S. military who use prison labor to avoid paying decent wages for goods and services; and all of the politicians, lawyers, and bankers who structure deals to build new prisons often in predominately white rural communities — deals that often don’t deliver on their promises to these communities. *see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, pp. 230-2; Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Incarceration, ed. Tara Herivel and Paul Wright; and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag.
We have trampled on the needy and brought ruin to the poor of the land. As we continue to buy the poor for silver and needy for a pair of sandals, we confess and pray for mercy…