.And That’s Not the Worst News
From the very beginning of the rise of private prisons in the United States in the 1980s it seemed to me that something was inherently wrong with mixing prisons and profit. It reeked of exploitation of the most defenseless members of society, people who are imprisoned, especially when those people are children. It seems only natural to me that the degree of success of the prison business is a function of how much profit can be increased by shaving important factors like staff numbers and training, medical and food services, education programs, job training, etc.
My suspicions proved to be right. Despite the legal requirement to match the standards of public prisons, private facilities have failed to maintain the same level of safety and security, according to declarations by Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates on August 18, 2016. This statement provided fuel for an ongoing effort to have private prisons banned, or at least discontinued. Yates was later named Acting Attorney General of the United States by President Donald Trump and subsequently dismissed by him on January 30, 2017, after his team had decided to give priority to investors in the lucrative incarceration business.
The Americans Learned It from the Brits
American private prison traditions go back a long way, actually originating in Britain. After the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), deprived of the possibility of transporting convicts to the American colonies the British began housing them in prison ships moored in British ports. In the modern era, the U.K again leads the way. Wolds Prison opened as the first privately managed prison in the UK (and in Europe) in 1992. Today all UK prisons are privately run and all of them are legally required to turn a profit. But after a critical report regarding a privately-operated jail, the Labour party’s shadow justice secretary said they would be inclined to take control of for-profit prisons if the industry competitors had not met deadlines and rules imposed upon them. The chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick recommended the creation of a government takeover contingency plan.
“It’s not delivering what the public should expect of the millions being paid to run it.” said Sadiq Khan, a Member of Parliament later to become the mayor of London, “I see no difference whether the underperformance is in the public, private or voluntary sector… We shouldn’t tolerate mediocrity in the running of our prisons.” Khan continued: “We can’t go on with scandal after scandal, where the public’s money is being squandered and the quality of what’s delivered isn’t up to scratch. The government is too reliant on a cosy group of big companies. The public are rightly getting fed up to the back teeth of big companies making huge profits out of the taxpayer, which smacks to them of rewards for failure.”
The abuses in private facilities on the American side of the Atlantic are also historic, beginning in the post-Civil War South. Labor was scarce after the slaves were freed so “convict leases” were issued to plantations and businesses to supplement their workforces, a system that smells of slavery, and survived till the early 20th century. Coincidentally, today the majority of private prisons in the U.S. are in the South, coinciding roughly with states associated with the rich American tradition of lynching.
The War on Drugs and Creeping Privatization
The privatization of certain non-custodial prison services–medical and food services, vocational training, transportation, etc. has been standard procedure in the U.S. for a long time but it wasn’t until 1981 when President Nixon’s War on Drugs, with its more frequent and longer prison terms, gave rise to the necessity for additional lockup facilities. It didn’t take the private sector long to identify the business opportunities. Their foot in the door was the takeover of the management of the prison in Hamilton, Tennessee by the Correction Corporation of America. Prisons soon became big business and private companies were building their own prisons and filling them with drug offenders and other convicts.
Nixon’s War on Drugs has been intimately linked to the exponential growth of the American prison system, both public and private, into the largest prison population in the industrialized world with 698 people incarcerated per 100,000 population. (The U.S. is topped only by minuscule island country of Seychelles out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with a population of 94,700 and an incarceration rate of 798. In all fairness they have to deal with pirates from all over the world, for whom they have built a special prison.) But how does a modern, industrialized, technological, educated, democratic, Christian country like the U.S.A. become the world’s biggest jailer in absolute terms: 2.2 million prisoners?
It’s about Original Sin
An article by Emily Dufton in The Atlantic in 2012, The War on Drugs: How President Nixon Tied Addiction to Crime, traces the recent history of the criminalization of drugs. She says,
“The issue of drug addiction has long straddled the line between being framed as a medical, political, or moral issue. Richard Nixon simply presented his stance in terms that appealed specifically to his conservative base. Andrew Hacker, in his 1973 article ‘On Original Sin and Conservatives,’ summed up the ‘personal-culpability’ argument succinctly when he claimed that conservatives believe that ‘man is infected by the virus of Original Sin…’
“This is precisely the ideology that underscored all of Nixon’s drug war policies and allowed him to present himself as the moral solution to failed liberal initiatives. It was a delusion to assume that we could cure social problems that are, at root, lapses in moral judgment and the mark of original sin. The addict doesn’t need to be cured. Rather, he needs to be contained before he can do any additional harm. Launching a war that emphasizes forfeiture and “no-knock” drug busts over rehabilitation or treatment is the most logical outcome of this reasoning, one that we’ve endured since 1971.”
Go to: U.S. Private Prisons Have Failed, Part 2
Read more rant in my ebook, The Turncoat Chronicles.
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