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Is the Prison-Industrial Complex on the Ropes?

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PRISONS HAVE BEEN THE most reliable growth industry in America over the last two decades. The surge in lockups in this country in recent times is spawning a prison-industrial complex, hungry to rig the political system to ensure the continued delivery of legions of bodies along with their related financial profits. But the boom could finally be coming to an end.

Forty years ago, prisons were often seen as dark blotches on the landscapes. Today, towns idolize prisons as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The prison represented opportunity, the birth of hope”. We cant afford to lose that, declared the mayor of Mendota, California, Robert Rasmussen, after a private company broke ground to build a prison. In small towns and depressed areas across the nation, politcos applaud government policies that turn as many people as possible into human waste just to keep their local storage-based economy humming.

Prior to the war on drugs, the U.S. incarceration rate was similar to that of other Western countries. But the number of people in federal and state prisons on drug convictions has increased tenfold since 1980. Since 1987, people convicted of drug offenses have accounted for nearly three-quarters of all new federal prisoners. Even former drug czar Barry McCaffrey conceded that the flood of drug violators has turned prisons into Americas internal gulag.

The soaring incarceration rates are profoundly changing what Americans can expect in their lives. The Justice Department estimates that almost 10 percent of all American males will end up in prison at some point in their lives and that almost one-third of black males will end up in prison during their lives. Blacks are incarcerated at a far higher rate than whites, in part because of the disproportionate impact of federal minimum-sentencing guidelines for selling, using, or possessing crack cocaine.

Federal policies and federal bribes to state and local governments have been the strongest force behind the prison boom of the last decade. While tough on crime themes have been a Republican staple since Barry Goldwaters 1964 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton co-opted the issue and rammed through a crime bill in 1994 that opened up new floodgates of federal aid for building state prisons. In the last six years, the federal government has awarded $8 billion to pay for building state penal facilities. Regrettably, the current justice system completely ignores the addictive effect of federal subsidies.

The 1994 crime bill also provided new subsidies that motivated states to pass legislation requiring anyone convicted of a crime to serve at least 85 percent of his prison sentence. Previously, prisoners were often given time off for good behavior or because they were judged to no longer pose a threat to society. Federal grants to hire tens of thousands of additional cops to bust dope smokers and other potential terrorists helped produce record numbers of jailbirds.

Other federal policies also pump-prime the prison industry. Towns that have a new prison built in their domain or that annex land including a nearby prison can see their population double or triple. Many federal grants are distributed on the basis of raw population numbers regardless of how many residents are locked away in perpetuity in solitary confinement. Prisoners become tokens redeemed for funds for extra housing, road building, environmental, and social spending for residents. Local governments also collect federal windfalls because most prisoners have zero income thus making the locales appear to be poverty zones.

Prison privatization

The prison boom along with the privatization chic of the Reagan and Bush (the father) administrations spurred the creation of private prison companies promising to deliver the wonders of free enterprise in support of the latest political manias. Because the companies usually built their own prisons reducing the need for government outlays or borrowing for prison construction they made it easier for politicians to ignore or hide the true cost of mass incarceration.

The prison boom was so hot in the mid 1990s that private companies began building prisons on spec. Prisons were built without a contract, without a commitment, simply on the hope that once the prisons were finished, some government agency would deliver busloads of people for incarceration. “If you build it in the right place, the prisoners will come was the motto of at least one company. In principle, there is little difference between building prisons on spec and building gas chambers on spec in the hope of a boom market for death penalties. Yet the prisons were almost always greeted with open arms by local government officials.

Many anti-prison activists are outraged that the private profit motive could be involved in incarceration: but what about incarceration for political profit? Private prisons currently hold less than 10 percent of all the convicts in the United States and several companies are at risk of bankruptcy.

While some critics believe the prison boom was the result of kickbacks and campaign contributions from special interests, Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, observed that until relatively recently, the political interests of both parties ‘get tough sentencing has been so strong that it has not necessarily required much outside money or influence to keep the momentum for laws and policies resulting in rising prison populations.

But despite the best efforts of prison guard unions, private companies, and other interested parties, America may be on the verge of a grave shortage of prison fodder. Across the nation, states are realizing that they now have hundreds if not thousands more prison beds than prisoners. Private companies are also gnashing their teeth over thousands of empty prison beds.

The prison glut may be worst in Mississippi with 2,000 empty prison beds waiting forlornly for prey. Lobbyists for private prison companies Wackenhut and the Correctional Corporation of America, along with local sheriffs with jail space and county governments who built their own prisons, sprang into action last year and hustled state legislators to pass a bill to pay subsidies for ghost inmates to compensate prisons for the shortfall of bodies in their facilities (the same treatment Mississippi cotton growers perennially receive from the U.S. Department of Agriculture).

The Wall Street Journal noted that legislators found the money for ghost inmates at the same time they were cutting state budgets for classroom supplies, community colleges, mental-health services and other programs. Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore complained, Weve got this all wrong. Were the poorest state in the union, and were investing money in failures.

Ronnie Musgrove, governor of Mississippi, denounced legislators for bailing out prisons while taking money away from children and teachers. (The legislature overrode the governors veto of the ghost inmate subsidy bill.)

Other costs

Some states are realizing that ever-growing prisons are creating more problems than they are solving. One Louisiana state senator observed that the situation had become so bad that we had half the population in prison and the other half watching them. Julie Stewart, head of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, one of Washingtons most effective anti-drug-war lobbies, declared, I think the tide is changing on sentencing. Connecticut got rid of some mandatory minimums on the state level; there is a trend away from this blind incarceration of low-level offenders….

Prisons are also losing their sheen as more locales discover their downside. Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project notes that the financial benefits often turn out to be not quite as advertised. Many of the jobs dont go to residents of local towns. It may be other people already in civil service lists from other parts of the state come in and get the jobs. The town also develops an image as prison town which is not very conducive to attracting other industries.

Mauer also stresses the high psychic costs of prisons when you have such a large proportion in a small community whose job it is to keep people locked in cages that really changes the whole tone of the community. It distorts everybodys approach to what a healthy functioning community should look like. It comes to look like you are either a prisoner or a guard.

The political glorification of prisons is another sign of the rising contempt for individual liberty. It is tragic that so many people believed that the secret to prosperity was to destroy as many peoples freedom as possible. The prison mania has been driven by a perverted political cost-benefit analysis which assumed that the suffering of government-designated victims doesnt count.

The pending prison bust could be avoided if the Bush administration reheats the drug war. Asa Hutchinson, Bushs DEA chief, declared upon taking office that he was excited to serve America by beginning our great national crusade against illegal drugs. For drug czar, Bush chose John Walters another nominee full of righteous wrath. But perhaps Americans have learned enough not to stampede the next time politicians call for another crackdown.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.