America is starting its second journey into the oligopoly of private run prisons. Nobody seems to be aware of the lessons learned from 150 years ago when cash starved states sold the rights to operate state prisons to entrepeneurial hucksters. In the mid-1800’s states actually leased convict labor to private businesses for a profit. Shortly thereafter the business of corrections was turned over to private enterprise. These snake oil salesmen promised to wharehouse inmates at no cost to the state. You don’t have to be smarter than a 5th grader to know what happened next.
While state legislators turned a blind eye, prisoners suffered malnourishment, frequent whippings, being overworked, while prison overcrowding was just another part of crime and punishment. Not until other businesses cried foul (‘unpaid convict labor is unfair competition”) did the legislatures awaken from their moral slumber. Progressive reform and anti-trust legislation from the turn of the 20th century swept the inmates back into the control of the states. Until now.
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The contemporary push to privatize our state prisons is not likely to result in unpaid convict labor or whippings, but it certainly risks contemporary problems nonetheless. Our war on drugs has put a greater percentage of Americans behind bars than at anytime in our history. In fact, we may be second in the world only to that bastion of democracy — China.
We now have a “prison-industrial complex” that rivals that of the “military-industrial complex” — for-profit private corporations locked in a parasitic embrace with business of crime. Pitched as cost-savings and job creating inititatives, these fast talking folks have a financial stake in creating more demand. That is legislation that promises more arrests and prison terms, legislation that increases prison terms and mandatory prison terms, and laws that curtail early release. Moreover, in-prison programming to reduce recidivism is counter to their for profit mission.
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When private industry is in the business of making money on our misery and social ills, we all should be paying attention. Conspiracy theorists abound. But, does anyone believe that Exxon is pushing for wind and solar energy over oil? How much has big auto spent in D.C. to fight light rail in America while Europe developed an extremely efficient train service? When large corporations profit motives are in conflict with America’s as a whole, extra vigilance is required.