The American Prison System

The American Prison System, capitalism out of control.

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It’s big of course but did you realise just how big. Prison costs the US taxpayer $77 billion every year. That’s bigger than the turnover of 133 sovereign countries. 65 million Americans have criminal records and are or have been under some form of correctional control, prison, probation or parole. That’s 20% of the population more than the population of Britain. Since 1970 the US prison population has increased by 700% and a desperate government is turning more and more to the private sector to cope. Since 1990 the number of private prisons has increased by 1600%.

The War Against Drugs and Illegal Immigration is the driving force for this startling increase in the number of prisoners. The government went to the private sector to improve efficiency and lower cost (mainly wages). In Mississippi, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), one of the biggest private players, pays $12.88 against $27 for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Amazingly in their contract with Uncle Sam CCA are guaranteed between 90% and 100% occupancy rates! If occupancy rates fall below 90% the government pays for the empty cells. The taxpayer foots the bill from the public safety budget.

In their tough on drugs and illegal immigration policies, both failing miserably, the government put the fox in charge of the hen house. It’s well known that putting people in prison doesn’t work very well. At best it’s like sweeping your dirt under the carpet, out of sight out of mind. In this case however things will never improve, they can’t or the likes of CCA will be out of a job. For example most prisoners can earn time off for good behaviour but in a private prison they are 8 times more likely to get time added to their sentence for minor infractions. Talking back to a guard will get you 30 days at $200 a night. Worse, private prison operators spend millions lobbying politicians in Washington DC. They want harsher sentences, they do not want legalisation of drugs or immigration amnesties. So what about rehabilitation of prisoners and reducing the rate of reoffending? Not going to happen, it’s bad for business. The emphasis is on filling prisons and building new ones not on rehabilitation, not on treating people like human beings.
The co-founder of CCA is the former Chairman of the Tennessee Republican party. Oh and CCA is listed as a Real Estate Investment Trust not a Prison Operator, it is therefore exempt from paying Federal taxes.

On the domestic front CCA charges inmates $5 a minute for phone calls and pays them wages of $1 per day. That means a weeks wages for one minute on the phone. Prisoners are traded by brokers who get paid commissions by competing prisons. A lifer is worth more than someone who got 2 years for fraud. Prisoners become commodities not human beings. So we get a crazy and cruel situation where a New York prisoner’s wife will likely have to visit her husband in Texas or Mississippi. How does that effect the marriage and the family? How does that help him get his life back on course? The cheapest prisons to run are of course, in rural America. Here the cost of doing business is optimal. Private prisons rent out their prisoners to companies like Starbucks, McDonalds, Boeing and even the American Military. Prisoners are heavily used in the making of military equipment, helmets, armour etc on lucrative government contracts. Last year CCA cleared $300 million, (tax free).

OK, there is no denying that from a moral standpoint the American penal system is one sick puppy. It’s just wrong on so many levels, unless you are a shareholder like Bank of America, Barclays, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase & Co. There is also no denying that this coalition of power is incredibly effective from a commercial standpoint. American corporations run like Swiss Watches, they are frighteningly efficient, competition is fierce. It’s very easy to criticise but there is also much to admire here. There is nothing wrong with being effective and profitable within the disciplines of a free market. The problem is that corporate America has no moral compass only the relentless hunt for profit, naked greed.

Commerce and trade is pivotal to any healthy society but it must have a moral conscience. It must embrace its social responsibilities and it must be supervised effectively by the elected representatives of the people. It is not surprising that Corporate America has, very effectively, taken control of the political machine. In marketing terms it’s called vertical integration, the corporation takes over every layer of the supply chain to maximise profit. It’s perfectly logical. Any organisation or person who has the power to influence the bottom line is targeted and coerced. Any political oversight has long ago been bought and paid for.
They say that you can judge a nation by how it treats its prisoners. Prisoners, no matter their crime, are still human beings. They are not commodities to be exploited and traded for profit. There is a name for that kind of thing, slavery. It seems that slavery is not dead. African Americans and Hispanics represent 25 % of the population of America but 60% of the prison population. Americans are being kept in prison for profit like farm animals.

The prison system is but one example of how corporate America undermines the democratic and political process. There are many others. The American Republic and its ground breaking constitution represents a milestone in human evolution. It is by its very nature a challenge to human nature, to discrimination, to prejudice and greed. It is under constant and sustained attack from within and without.

In 1787 Benjamin Franklin helped create the new Republic. As he left the constitutional convention in Philadelphia he was famously asked by Mrs Powel what kind of government had been chosen. He replied,
“A Republic, madam, if we can keep it.”

The battle rages on, it extends far beyond America’s borders and affects us all. So God Bless America and her idealistic constitution, she needs all the help she can get.

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