03/05/2013 03:54 pm ET Updated May 05, 2013

Prison as a Cottage Industry

Something to consider: If we are NOT the "most evil" country in the world--i.e., the country with the greatest number of evil people residing in it--then we're doing something terribly wrong when it comes to jurisprudence, because we have the greatest number (1.6 million) of incarcerated people.

Now if these 1.6 million people truly deserve to be incarcerated, then so be it. If they deserve to be locked up, then we're forced to accept the unhappy fact that we are, indeed, home to the world's greatest number of criminal-minded people. Not much we can do about that. But if these men and women DON'T deserve to be imprisoned, then it's a whole other deal. If they DON'T deserve it, shame on us, because all we're doing is messing with them.

A question: Are we truly "afraid" of these people? Are we afraid of them or just mad at them? Is it retribution? Is it punishment? Or does it have more to do with economics than "justice"? Are we running these people through the system in order to provide jobs for judges, police, bailiffs, counselors, court recorders, lawyers, probation officers, prison guards and bail bondsmen (not to mention exploiting cheap prison labor)?

Another ominous sign is the rise of private ("for-profit") prisons, one of the more hideous manifestations of that now ubiquitous phenomenon known as "outsourcing." Under this arrangement, when local, state or federal authorities can't or won't handle the influx of prisoners, they turn over all or part of the operation to private firms.

Even if we give these for-profit prisons the benefit of the doubt and say that they do a better job than government-run prisons (an assertion that is regularly challenged), there's a profoundly disturbing aspect of self-interest involved here. It's not only disturbing, it's downright frightening.

To survive, these private facilities require a supply of prisoners. They need prisoners the same way sausage-makers need pigs. And just as a cataclysmic pig epidemic would ravage the sausage industry, a precipitous and sustained drop in the crime rate would ravage the for-profit prison industry.

Bizarre as it sounds, we now have a commercial enterprise that goes home at night and prays for more crime. ("Please, God, let there more felony arrests.") It's true. Unlike the average citizen who clings to the hope that society is gradually improving itself, these for-profit prisons (and the shareholders who invest in them) hope that society produces more criminals. They see it as job security.

Oddly, violent crime (which the FBI classifies as murder, rape, and aggravated assault) has declined significantly over the last 15-20 years. For whatever reason (and there are numerous theories), we have become a drastically less violent society. Annual homicides number approximately 16,000. By contrast, there are roughly 32,000 suicides annually.

With violent crime dropping, and Americans (not counting Wall Street) generally becoming more law-abiding, our for-profit prisons have been forced to look elsewhere. Accordingly, what they now focus on is illegal immigrants and drug users, which is why the private prison lobby opposes any meaningful attempt to reform our immigration and drug laws.

Putting people in jail for drug use is strange. Yes, drugs are illegal, and yes, the issue can't be ignored. But why do we insist that some poor schmuck, whose only crime is wanting to get high, be locked up inside a cage? And referring to these hapless stoners as "criminals" is unfair. We should call them what they are: "Sausage."

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," 2nd Edition), was a former labor union rep.