I don’t want to present myself as some sort of singular figure. I think part of what is different is the times. I do think that, for example, the 1980 election was different. I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. They felt like with all the excesses of the 60s and the 70s and government had grown and grown but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think he tapped into what people were already feeling. Which is we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.

Barack Obama

Obama, regardless of recent pronouncements by the Justice Department,  is not changing our path away from the mess Reagan created. Law enforcement agencies and ALEC-funded draconian policies are the modern slave traders, and enabling acts, trafficking in misery and suffering while invoking the noble cause of justice. Meanwhile, far less nobly, private prison corporations strike deals with the states to take over their state-run prisons provided that they increase convictions and durations so that the prisons remain at or near capacity insuring the almighty bottom-line is sound. Justice is not a part of the equations of capitalism; profit is profit no matter who is harmed. Giving new cannibalistic meaning to vulture capitalism; human flesh is not taboo. Grinding up a natural resource for lawful gains… they pick the bones of dieing cities. Cannibal Capitalism.
    As long as our system feeds this monster, this growth sector bubble will thrive and expand at the expense of the tax-payer and the families torn apart by the war on drugs and the war on the poor. Private prison corporations have been called Wall Street darlings, proving once again that Wall Street loves fascistic institutions. We denigrate China while we shake the finger: We proclaim our virtue as the land of the free: Then we imprison more people than any other nation without the slightest evidence of cognitive dissonance. We balk at the level of nepotism and corruption in Mexico, yet fail to see the same, if not worse, in our own country; jingoism to be sure. Happy to live the lie I presume. The urge to look away is overwhelming.

Americans have built a new civil and political order structured around the problem of violent crime. In this new order, values like freedom and equality have been revised in ways that would have been shocking, if obviously imaginable—in the late 1960s, and new forms of power institutionalized and embraced—all in the name of repressing seemingly endless waves of violent crime. Though [Doris] Lessing condemned this new order as an “organized barbarism,” many Americans have come to tolerate it as a necessary response to unacceptable risks of violence in  everyday life.
    Criminologists and sociologists have long sought to document that this fear of crime and violence is irrational in its scope and priority. But even if the public were to seriously consider the empirical evidence for this position, there would be little reason to expect the civil order built around crime in America to disappear anytime soon. Nor should we expect the current decline in crime rates, should it continue, to produce a commensurately dramatic shift. Crime has become so central to the exercise of authority in America, by everyone from the president of the United States to the classroom teacher, that it will take a concerted effort by Americans themselves to dislodge it. They will have to find ways to disrupt the flow of information, discourse, and debate tied to crime while creating new pathways to knowing and acting on the people and relationships that are their responsibility to foster and protect.

Jonathan Simon, Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear

    Socioeconomic stratification, compassionless outmoded policies and the profit motive create an unending parade of victims for this grinder of human meat. For the average citizen in today’s America there are four paths, Military, Servitude, Homelessness, and Prison. This coercive paradigm allots for little deviation in an individuals life path. There is the path chosen disproportionately by the poor; the military, a meat grinder in it’s own right in wars of market penetration, resource exploitation and territorial denial. Then there is the path that most are funneled into; servitude. The service industry, oft referred to as a “growth sector,” where those with little serve those with much. Do nothing and homelessness or extreme poverty is all that awaits you. Social safety net? Bootstrap. Chose a “socially unacceptable” path and it near-inevitably leads to prison, death or the tragically ignoble death in prison. But do so many people truly deserve to be in prison? Or is there another reason “superfluous populations” are fed in this prison-industrial complex?
Early dreams of the prison-based, recession-proof economy were not tied to private prisons, which during the mid-1980s were just starting to come into existence. The United States forged ahead with private management of prisons after President Ronald Reagan declared in the opening lines of his first inaugural address that “government was the problem.” Part of the “Reagan revolution” involved privatizing as many government activities as possible, based on an economic theory about free markets that contained assumptions that frequently did not match reality. The election of Reagan and the veneration of an extreme version of free market theory was the first of two important factors necessary for the idea of private prisons to gain traction.
    Normally, prisons would not be considered seriously for privatizing, but the second factor, relentless prison overcrowding, created the appearance of a problem that privatization could solve. From the early 1900s through to the 1970s, the incarceration rate (the number of people in prison for every one hundred thousand citizens) had been relatively stable, and few new prisons were needed. Nixon’s “law-and-order” campaign responded to social protest and black empowerment and ushered in decades of “get-tough-on-crime” proposals. Enacting numerous laws to increase prison sentences and incarcerate more people had the obvious effect of increasing the number of people in prison, but little prison construction had been done to prepare for the larger prison populations. The easily foreseeable increase in incarceration led to a crisis as prisons became overcrowded, inmates filed suits, and courts started declaring entire prison systems in violation of Eighth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.
    The ideology that business is more efficient than government led to easy and widespread acceptance of the claim that government mismanagement was generating inmate lawsuits rather than to an investigation into the effectiveness of harsher sentencing policies. The alternative was to ask difficult questions about race (what does “tough on crime” mean when most people associate criminals with African American men?) and the desirability of using an incarceration binge to rebuild the economy (turning the United States, the land of the free, into the country with the highest rate of imprisonment). Needless to say, the country continued to endorse tough-on-crime slogans, which funneled trillions of dollars into prison construction, payroll, and supplies.

Donna Selman, Punishment for Sale: Private Prisons, Big Business and the Incarceration Binge

    This would seem to be anything but freedom. Every path places you beneath a master. Military rules through domination: Service rules using willful submission: Poverty rules via deprivation: Prison rules by confinement. The only people truly receiving the fruits of their own labor are the self-employed, employee-owned businesses and the very low-level criminals fed into this system of mass incarceration. This type of do-as-we-say-or-else coercion for large swaths of the population is the tactic of dictatorships not the land of the free. Freedom should not have the flickering illusionary quality of a distant mirage. It should be set in stone for all to see and touch under the trembling hand of real pride and open-eyed patriotism.
    I do not feel this in the country in which I live. When a black male is 300% more likely to spend time in prison during their lifetime than I. When a beer drinker risks nothing but a cab fare home and a joint smoker risks their very freedom in fear of a stray breeze and wary nose. When you are eight times more likely to be killed by your own police than killed by a terrorist. We spend countless dollars battling “the terrorists” but nearly no funding for reforming the militarized local police forces that racially profile, beat and kill.
Crime does not need to increase for the fear of crime to become prominent. More worrisome is that groundless fears about crime have a lot to do with what and whom a society calls criminal. For example, in many parts of the world, including the United States, there are false fears that immigration causes crime. Sometimes the combined fears of immigration and crime are so great that immigration itself is treated as if it were criminal. A major challenge for criminology is to overcome such biases in developing meaningful definitions and measures for the study of crime. …
    The public often vilified immigrants for their alleged alcohol and drug abuse, but also for their criminality more generally. The assumed linkage was clear and crude: the public believed that immigration caused crime (e.g., Immigration Commission 1911; Industrial Commission 1901). The public tendency was to regard immigrants as prospective criminals and to treat them as such. Much of this response to immigrants was mixed with a growing fear of the effects of alcohol and drugs.
    The United States has experimented with prohibiting two kinds of chemical crimes: the use of alcohol and the use of narcotic drugs. These experiments mixed elements of fear and hostility with regard to groups Americans regarded as foreigners and outsiders. There is little doubt that narcotics legislation was partly an expression of hostile attitudes toward foreign and domestic minority groups associated with drug use. Musto observes that “in the nineteenth century addicts were identified with foreign groups and internal minorities who were already actively feared and the objects of elaborate and massive social and legal constraints.” For example, the Chinese were associated with opium, southern blacks with cocaine and Mexicans with marijuana. By gradually persuading the public to associate narcotics use with disenfranchised foreign and domestic minorities, politicians and lobbyists laid the foundation for an enduring legislative prohibition.

John Hagan, Who Are the Criminals?: The Politics of Crime Policy from the Age of Roosevelt to the Age of Reagan

We target and annihilate outgroups; the groups with the least influence and powerful friends. Has the targeting of minorities and the committers of consensual crimes become invisible to most? And to what end do we march in lockstep prison-issue garb? What is the logical conclusion of this mass incarceration and servitude? A nation of freedomless prisoners and blind consumers rather than the informed citizens we need? Shall all of America one day have the look and feel of the West Bank? With those few not incarcerated in open-air prison cities laboring beneath paper hats and nametags for Corporate America asking if you’d like fries alongside that or if you need a different size for that sweatshop T-shirt to those with money?
    Surely not, as all bubbles must one day burst. But how many human beings will we allow destroyed in the meantime while we saunter to the next retail shop filled with goods from dictatorships or fast food store filled with scientifically-engineered combinations of salt, fat and sugar that usher us to an early grave from the preventable diseases they traffic?  At what point does the under-funding of schools, social programs and drug rehabilitation to fund this unjust and “recession-proof” prison-industrial complex become politically untenable? Have we actually become indifferent, if not numb, to the statistically anomalous racial disproportionality in our so-called justice system? Vested interests have won  for decades while The People have lost. Reform seems a long shot. According to some, hope is on the horizon.
In the last few decades, the United States has witnessed an explosion in the number of people behind bars. This move towards mass incarceration is an anomaly that began in the 1980s, prompted by the War on Drugs and a slew of tough-on-crime laws which were adopted nationwide.
    Over that period, the national prison population grew so quickly that federal and state governments simply ran out of space for offenders. As a result, government agencies began contracting with newly-established private prison operators to handle the overflow.
    Having seen mass incarceration as an opportunity for profit,1 the private prison industry grew rapidly, in lock-step with the US prison population, to the multi-billion dollar industry it is today. And leading this industry is Corrections Corporation of America (“CCA”), a publicly-traded prison operator with a history of horrendous prison conditions and human rights abuses.
    In the process of building the largest prison system in the world, state budgets have exploded into an unmitigated disaster as correctional spending has become the fastest growing area of expenditure, behind Medicaid. As a result, all stripes of government have been forced to undertake sweeping reforms to reduce their prison populations and cut their corrections spending.
    The US prison population peaked in 2009. Since then, states have embraced a cascade of criminal justice reforms designed to reduce incarceration rates and dismantle 30 years of over-criminalization and draconian sentences, which were once popular, but now only seen as a burden on taxpayers. Most incredible of all is that these reforms have been the result of bipartisan action. Where historically the ills of mass incarceration were a liberal issue, conservatives are joining the fight on financial concerns.
    The damage these reforms are causing CCA is obvious. For example, CCA has halted a major construction project, is experiencing a glut of empty beds, and is expected to report its first-ever annual revenue decline this year. In fact, a number of CCA’s customers are terminating some or all of their contracts with the Company. Notably, California which represents 12.2% of CCA’s revenue base is expected to cancel all its contracts with the Company in the next few years.
With the US prison population declining and CCA no longer expanding organically, Management is swinging for the fences with a new growth strategy of acquiring and managing public facilities. In doing so, CCA is touting the supposed cost-savings of privatization. So far, not a single state has taken CCA up on its offer – no doubt because multiple independent and government studies have concluded that private prisons are no more cost-effective than state prisons. For example, in 2010, the Auditor General of Arizona issued a report slamming private prisons as costing as much as 16% more than state facilities.

Anonymous Analytics, Corrections Corporation of America: The Dismantling of a National Disgrace

The bubble appears to have peaked, even marginally decreased. But, and this should be of some concern, has the prison industry become a systemic risk? If the bubble were to burst today, with the release of massive amounts of non-violent offenders, what would be the effects on the rural towns where the prisons have been built? Sure, there would be a great relief to state and federal budgets, but what about the satellite industries downstream? What have we done to our country in the name of the “securing” of our cities? There may be a corollary between this prison-industrial complex and the national security complex we have grown pre- and post-911. The effects are, at least to me, in both situations, unpredictable. Someday, we shall see.

Shock and Awed
Cowen Thorne

Originally posted to ShockandAwed on Wed Sep 18, 2013 at 02:57 PM PDT.

Also republished by American Legislative Transparency Project.


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