Prisoners for Profit

Most people by now have heard of the American military industrial complex.   Although it can refer to other countries as well, the phrase was coined famously by Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address speech on January 17, 1961.   It was a warning about the unjustified government spending on the military.   The warning went largely unnoticed.

In 1997 almost forty years later a similar phrase was coined by social activist Angela Davis as she named her book The prison industrial complex.   It explains what happens to the American legal system when it locks up more people for longer sentences and which industries are parts of the complex.

Angela Davis Novel

Thirteen years after that book was written, things have gone from bad to worse.   At that time there were approximately 1.65 million inmates in the American prison system.   As of 2008 there are 2.42 million, a massive 38% increase, surprising as well given that over that same time span the crime rate for violent crimes and property crimes all went down.   In 2004 the crime rate was as low as the early 1970’s.

There are a few reasons for the high contrast in trends and for the prison industrial complex as a whole.   For instance: mandatory minimum sentences for violent and non-violent crimes alike such as drug trafficking or possession, regardless of circumstances. A law that requires inmates to stay in prison without parole sometimes far longer than the crime deserves. The conservative government in Canada is trying to introduce this law to parliament as we speak.

3 strikes and you’re out!   This law, now passed in twenty-eight states in the U.S., is another element to the complex.   Some states have more lenient three strike laws than others, but California is far and away the harshest. If you’re caught and sentenced with drug possession a couple times, a crime normally punishable by only a couple months, you can then be sentenced to fifty years for stealing a bicycle or even a slice of pizza (both instances have actually happened).

The real crux of the prison industrial complex obviously lies mostly in deregulation, privatization and industrialization.   There are thirty-seven states that have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations.   IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T to name a few, all have operations inside state prisons.

The High Rise in Incarceration

In the nineteen-eighties under President Reagan, prisons began to privatize in some states in order for the state governments to save money as it would cost 10% to 20% less per inmate (these numbers are very much in dispute even today).   Under President Clinton, the number of privately owned prisons skyrocketed as regulations were loosened and businessmen began to see the amount of profit that could be made.

For starters, convicted workers in federal and state prisons make a much higher wage… ranging from $1.25 an hour to the state minimum wage.   A prisoner in a privately run prison earns as low as $0.17 per hour.   Far less to send home to the inmate’s families and a much higher profit margin for the prisons and corporations who benefit from it. Also, with each inmate in a private prison, the company is also guaranteed a set price per inmate per day by the state government, regardless of the cost to hold the prisoner.

These points obviously leads to the concern over safety and working/living conditions as any corporation will try and cut costs as much as possible.   It’s also argued that these incentives demand that the prison companies try and keep their prisons full to capacity as much as possible. More people equals more profits.   Private prisons are also known to extend the sentence of the convicts for any minor infraction that occurs within the penitentiary.

In some cases privatization can also lead to corruption as there have been several cases of the prison owners bribing local police to arrest people without just cause in order to keep their prisons full and their profits flowing.

People have been imprisoned without just cause in order to keep their profits flowing.

Some people believe as I do that the prison system in the U.S. is the new form of slavery.   An extreme thought to some.   When blacks have a 12% share of the country’s population, but have more than 40% of the penitentiary population and have been sentenced for non-violent crimes it’s hard to argue against it… more so when they earn 17 cents an hour.

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