The Cells Effort
Though we call ours a free country, the truth is that we Americans keep more people unfree than any other nation. Roughly 2.3 million of us are, in the immortal lyric of Hank Snow, in the jailhouse now. That’s far more in total and per capita than China, a no-nonsense dictatorship with five times our population. As far as democracies go, we Americans are five to ten times more likely to call a cell home than Europeans.
There are a couple of ways you can look at this grotesque statistic. If all these folks belong in the clink, that makes America the most criminal country that ever was. Since we are also among the most pious of people, that number doesn’t say much for the supposedly benign effects of religion. On the other hand, if all those people don’t belong in the jug, we have the most energetic police state in existence.
There is, in fact, a third reason. The basic direction of these United States is to transform human activity, in so far as possible, into commercial transactions. Whereas communists believed in a utopia of happy workers dancing around the May Pole, the American dream is to get rich lending people money to buy tickets to the May Pole event. Thus it’s not surprising that our entrepreneurs came up with the insight that prisons were little more than cheap hotels with bad food whose doors only locked from the outside. Why they asked, in free market funk, should the socialistic state have a monopoly on these hostelries? Thus the private prison industry was launched.
Lobbying and loose money soon persuaded local pols that corporations could run jails more cheaply than could governments. Of course, that was pure bait and switch. The corporate outfits ran up their prices as soon as they got in. And, of course, what every business needs is customers. With jails, you can’t advertise weekend packages or letting the kids stay for free. You can only keep prodding the government to lock up ever more human beings.
Arizona is a case in point. It passed a law making it easier for cops to jam up likely illegals. In practice, this meant anyone who looked Mexican. This created a firestorm of protest by those being singled out--as well as anyone else still subscribing to justice, decency and the American way. Soon, it was reported by NPR and others that the law was less about preserving jobs or appeasing anti-immigrant yahoos than profiting Arizona’s private prison companies. In fact, it was literally drafted by those companies and handed to the governor to read to the legislature.
Things went hunky dory for a while, with the unlucky being given 20 years for jay walking and mopery. There was even a judge in Pennsylvania (now himself heading for the cooler) who was getting kickbacks for sentencing junior high kids to hard time in a private reformatory for not doing their homework. The correctional con artists were swimming in spondulicks. Then the recession hit and the states ran shy of revenues. Police were laid off, arrests dropped, and, horror of horrors, the states started freeing inmates to save money. The prison profiteers, who had planned on ever-rising incarceration rates till presumably half the country was being paid minimum wages to guard the imprisoned other half, took it on the lamb. Towns that had invested in now empty for-profit jails found themselves straining to pay off their bonds. Just like the housing bubble, the big house bubble had burst. No doubt it will bounce back, given the degree of our greed and the fact that we have hundreds of millions of potential prisoners.
For the first half of this country’s history, business profited from keeping people in chains. It was called slavery. Now they profit from keeping them in cells. It looks very much like the same thing here in the self-proclaimed land of the free.