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Michael Shammas Headshot

End the Prison-Industrial Complex

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There are plenty of legitimate reasons to send someone to prison -- deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation and so on -- but profit is not among them. Unfortunately, it is an obscenely large reason that American prisons today house more inmates than any other country on this planet.

If that doesn't trouble you, it should. A nation that prides itself on freedom is, paradoxically, the world's largest jailer. By some measures, the American incarceration rate is a whopping 743 per 100,000, well above the second largest jailer's (Russia, at 577). Twenty-five percent of the world's prisoners are American. There are perhaps more prisoners in America than in all of Europe -- a continent with twice our population.

While there are numerous culprits behind this trend, especially draconian sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, the most troubling by far is an increasingly privatized prison system that makes money off rampant criminalization and the hiking up of more and more sentences to levels that were previously unheard of.

Why is it troubling? Because introducing profit into the criminal justice calculus means lobbyists are pushing Washington to expend public resources for private interests. To put it bluntly, there are people hoping to imprison more people simply so that they can make more cash. Freedom lost is money gained.

Perhaps the worst aspect here is that, like the military-industrial complex, the general public is basically unaware of what a profitable business this unsavory thing has become or, indeed, that private prisons even exist. Consider the introduction to a recent Salon article:

Imagine living in a country where prisons are private corporations that profit from keeping their beds stocked at, or near, capacity and the governing officials scramble to meet contractual 'lockup quotas.' Imagine that taxpayers would have to pay for any empty beds should crime rates fall below that quota. Surprise! You already live there.

In Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, author Jeremy Scahill outlines the parallel problems that arise in the context of military privatization. When mercenary companies profit from conflict, the government -- a public institution -- goes to war for private reasons. The U.S. begins fighting wars not because of national interests, but instead because of corporate interests, for lobbyists with private interests push the public mechanisms of society to do their bidding. A hardworking blue-collar guy from Kansas thus pays taxes to fuel a war -- or even gives his life in a war -- that was largely pushed for by military contractors who stand to profit.

Parallel concerns involving the tension between public and private goals arise from the prison-industrial complex. Prisons serve a public function, yet the privatization of prisons means that a small, wealthy group's private interests will have effects that touch the rest of us and that are antithetical to legitimate public goals. According to a Mother Jones article, for example:

Occupancy requirements... are common practice within the private prison industry. A new report by In the Public Interest, an anti-privatization group, reviewed 62 contracts for private prisons operating around the country at the local and state level. In the Public Interest found that 41 of those contracts included occupancy requirements mandating that local or state government keep those facilities between 80 and 100 percent full. In other words, whether crime is rising or falling, the state must keep those beds full.

In addition to draining state coffers with unreasonable contracts, Corrections Corporation of America and other private prison companies motivated by higher profit margins have lobbied for mandatory minimums, "three-strike" laws, and "truth-in-sentencing" laws that drive up the prison population. Thus, one man's incarceration -- his ruined life -- is another man's livelihood. This is obscene.

American lives and freedom are not mere goods to be slapped with a price tag and bartered away. It is time to end the prison-industrial complex and to place the administration of prisons back where it belongs: the state.