America’s Lockup Complex

Year-over-year, America sets new prison records. No other nation on Earth comes close to America’s “lock’em up” ethos.

Therefore, assuming that imprisonment records are accurate, the U.S. is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. How else explain the enormous “lock’em up” numbers? What’s going on? Is America riddled with criminals? Jeez, it’s a wonder that tourists come to America with so many criminals on every street corner.

Not to worry! Tourists feel safe because the jails are bulging, overflowing, thus, criminals must be off every street corner and already locked up. That’s what they presume to be true. Why else would they flock in droves to visit Walt Disney World, Six Flags, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, Magic Kingdom, Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, where Mickey Mouse has a star, and other unique American cultural highlights that are targets of post-modernism’s cultural critique.

For sure, the bad guys/gals must be locked up. After all, how many more could possibly be on the loose when, according to prisonstudies.org: The top three lock’em up countries in the world are the U.S. China, and Russia, but exceptionally, the U.S. (pop. 320 million) has more people in jail than China (1.4 billion) and Russia (pop. 144 million) combined. For sure, that’s a world record!

So let’s look at the statistics.  The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.  Think about that. Our incarceration rate is four times higher than China’s.  We keep more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined.

But here’s the thing:  Over the last few decades, we’ve also locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before.  And that is the real reason our prison population is so high.  In far too many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime… Every year, we spend $80 billion to keep folks incarcerated — $80 billion… For what we spend to keep everyone locked up for one year, we could eliminate tuition at every single one of our public colleges and universities.1

So it goes, America is really good at jailing alleged vile beastly horrid nasty guys/gals and locking’em up, forever; however, according to Human Rights Watch, new tough-on-crime-laws in America, since the 1980s, have filled prisons with mostly nonviolent offenders. Coincidentally, that’s when neoliberalism took over America (Reagan) and Great Britain (Thatcher) with “tough talk.”

With neoliberalism (aka: privatizing the planet) firmly politicized, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s words of wisdom become drivel as The Social Contract assuredly dissipates. Rousseau: “The social state is advantageous to men only when all possess something and none has too much.” Neoliberalism is the antithesis. So, massive incarceration comes as no surprise! It is very profitable whereas welfare is not.

The Prison Industrial Complex (“PIC”) is but one more aspect of neoliberalism’s penchant for springing loose public assets directly into the hands of private for-profits, kind of like reverse 501C3s. After all, ever since Reagan/Thatcher turned the world upside down sideways in favor of privatization of all public assets, casting a dagger into the heart of the social contract, the bond between citizen and state increasingly severs, dissolves, comes apart. Wherefore jails are full.

The PIC, similar to all neoliberal dictates, has become nothing more, nothing less than an outgrowth of the dictum of reverse Robin Hood economics, stealing from the public purse to reward the sheriff’s posse; i.e., the one percent and including the ten percent. So it goes, neoliberalism knows no boundaries in pursuit of plucking profits off the public’s back. Moreover, the Prison Industrial Complex is a juicy target because of so much low hanging fruit.

Prisons for Prisons

Notably, America’s prison complex has maximum-security prisons for prisoners from other prisons. One of the originals is ADX Florence Supermax Prison (est. 1994) aka: “The Alcatraz of the Rockies,” in Florence, Colorado.

ADX domiciles abhorrently nasty criminals as well as prisoners that attacked guards and staff at other prisons. The ADX scenario is 23 hours per day solitary confinement. That’s how maximum security works, housing some of America’s most notorious, like Ted Kaczynski, and Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph, and alleged 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, and World Trade Center bombing mastermind Ramzi Yousef as well as Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols.

ADX cells are 12-by-7 feet with thick concrete walls and double sets of thick sliding metal doors. A single window three feet high by four inches wide offers glimpses of sky. Each cell has a sink-toilet combo and an automated shower. Prisoners sleep on concrete slabs topped with a thin mattress. Food is served through a slat in the door.

Robert Hood, a former warden, describes ADX as “a clean version of hell” (New York Times).

Subsequently, ADX/Colorado set a trend for other states: “According to a 2014 Amnesty International report, more than 40 states now operate supermax prisons. On any given day, there are 80,000 U.S. prisoners in solitary confinement.”2

Is America too Tough on Crime or Vice Versa?

The evidence shows that crime statistics in America have plummeted. The annual rate of violent crimes per 100,000 from 1975-2013 is way down.  For example, homicides are down from 10.2 per 100,000 to 4.5 per 100,000 (Department of Justice).

But, decreasing crime statistics alone can be misleading as to what’s really behind less crime. For example, “Canada, with practically none of the policy changes we point to here, had a comparable decline in crime over the same period.”3

In point of fact, America’s fall in crime was accompanied by notable declines in social ills such as teenage pregnancy, child abuse, and juvenile delinquency, all of which emphasize cultural shifts beyond the justice/penal system.

“The policy decisions to make long sentences longer and to impose mandatory minimums have had minimal effect on crime,” says Mr. Travis, of John Jay College. “The research on this is quite clear” (New York Times).

Higher imprisonment might explain from 10 percent to, at most, 25 percent of the crime drop since the early 1990s, says Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. But it brought diminishing returns (New York Times).

The Prison Industrial Complex

America is a sucker, a sap, a patsy for weird complexes that lead to costly, insane consequences; for example, the military industrial complex, outlined as a threat to the country by President Eisenhower in the 1950s. Alas, nobody paid attention.

Likewise, the prison industrial complex (“PIC”) is a stigma that bleeds budgets dry whilst lining the pockets of a select few in the private economy. “Some people are making lots and lots of money off the booming business of keeping human beings in cages.”4

According to Elliott Currie [Crime and Punishment in America -Pulitzer Prize finalist]: The prison has become a looming presence in our society to an extent unparalleled in our history — or that of any other industrial democracy. Short of major wars, mass incarceration has been the most thoroughly implemented government social program of our time.5

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Elliott Currie were wrong about his statement: “short of major wars, incarceration has been the most thoroughly implemented government social program of our time.” However, assuming he’s correct, America scandalously, disgracefully is certainly not the “greatest country in the world,” as preached by political mouthpieces from coast-to-coast, especially leading up to an election year. It’s not even close. The prison complex is living proof.

“As prisons take up more and more space on the social landscape, other government programs that have previously sought to respond to social needs — such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families — are being squeezed out of existence.”6    So, politically inspired prisons take precedence over assistance to needy families and education. Here’s doubling down on America’s “not the greatest…”

“Since 1984 more than twenty new prisons have opened in California, while only one new campus was added to the California State University system and none to the University of California system”.7 Here’s quadrupling down on America’s “not the greatest…”

America has 130 privately run prisons. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) is one of the biggest beneficiaries of private prison political largess (Washington Post). He’s running for president.

The Business of Prisons

“For private business,” write Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans, a political prisoner inside the Federal Correctional Institution at Dublin, California [The Prison-Industrial Complex & the Global Economy, PM Press, 2009] ‘prison labor is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No health benefits, unemployment insurance, or workers’ compensation to pay. No language barriers, as in foreign countries. New leviathan prisons are being built on thousands of eerie acres of factories inside the walls. Prisoners do data entry for Chevron, make telephone reservations for TWA, raise hogs, shovel manure, make circuit boards, limousines, waterbeds, and lingerie for Victoria’s Secret — all at a fraction of the cost of `free labor”.8

If private enterprise has its way, longer prison sentences are coming. According to the Justice Policy Institute, the big privately owned prison corporations, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, spend hundreds of thousands lobbying for longer sentences (Salon). Senator Rubio knows all about that.

Neoliberalism’s innate impulse to seek out the lowest common denominator of labor/working conditions has America’s private industry smack dab into the heartbeat of the prison complex in addition to its long tentacles reaching to China, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Ultra-low wages and horrible working conditions are not the exclusive domain of Asia. Prisons compete.

At $0.35/hour without any benefits high tech companies like Exmark (a Microsoft subcontractor), and Dell employ prisoners to shrink-wrap products and recycle old computers. USA Today reported (2004) that 2,000 prisoners in the U.S. work call centers (what?)  And, prisoners serve as handy replacements for undocumented farm workers everywhere from Georgia to Arizona to Idaho, where the Republican governor C.L. Otter signed a law allowing agricultural interests to hire prisoners (Salon).

Not only that, prisons inattentively sponsor big business, e.g., Corizon, a specialty prison healthcare (cough) company does $1.4 billion in annual revenues with prisons. But, allegedly, Corizon has a very, very, very spotty healthcare record. Evidence: “New York City officials have known for years about serious problems with Corizon Health Inc., the for-profit company that oversees medical care at the Rikers Island jail complex.”9

Critical Resistance, an organized movement to end the PIC, defines the term prison industrial complex as: “The overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.” Solutions? Really?

“At least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations that mount their operations inside state prisons. The list of such companies contains the cream of U.S. corporate society.”10

Maybe it would be better to go back to LBJ’s Great Society and discard neoliberalism’s rambunctious privatizing profit schemes, all of them. After all, those schemes only seem to exacerbate, exaggerate societal issues by crushing the social contract, by misdirecting taxpayer funds from helping a lot of wholesome, good people to lock up a few bad ones, many (most?) of whom aren’t all that bad.

Besides, there is something incongruous about Prisons for Profit.

  1. President Barack Obama Speech, NAACP Conference, The White House, July 14, 2015. []
  2. Mark Binelli, Inside America’s Toughest Federal Prison, New York Times, March 26, 2015. []
  3. Franklin E. Zimring, expert in criminal justice, University of California, Berkeley (Erik Eckholm, In a Safer Age, U.S. Rethinks Its ‘Tough on Crime’ System, New York Times, January 13, 2015. []
  4. Ray Downs, “Who’s Getting Rich off the Prison-Industrial Complex?” Vice, May 17, 2013. []
  5. Angela Davis, Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex, History as a Weapon. []
  6. Angela Davis, “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex”, History as a Weapon []
  7. Ibid-1 []
  8. Ibid-2, Davis []
  9. Micheal Winerip, “New York City to End Contract With Rikers Health Care Provider”, New York Times, June 10, 2015. []
  10. Vicky Pelaez, “The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery?” Global Research, March 31, 2014. []

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.