Prison-Industrial Complex

  Prison-Industrial Complex

Posted by FoM on August 26, 2001 at 16:48:17 PT
By Joe Bogan, Special to the Star-Telegram  
Source: Star-Telegram 

The American prison system has become less a servant of justice and more a creature of politics and a tool of special economic interests. The American prison system has become less a servant of justice and more a creature of politics and a tool of special economic interests.This idea is central to `Going Up The River: Travels in a Prison Nation,' a new book by Joseph Hallinan. The author, a successful journalist, spent a decade visiting, studying and writing about prisons.
For 30 years, I worked for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. I retired recently as warden of a women's prison in west Fort Worth. I also traveled extensively in the "prison nation."After growing up the son of a prison warden, I worked in six prisons and have visited more than 50. I spent a career experiencing the ups and downs of correctional work, struggling with its challenges, trying to make prison a better instrument of justice.For the past few years, my professional soul has been troubled, for I have come to believe that our federal system is less just than it once was. Hallinan's central idea is correct.`Going Up The River' is thoroughly documented and filled with information and history about prisons. The author writes interesting stories of inmates, their families, correctional officers (I won't call them `guards'), wardens and others. From these encounters, the reader learns about the "prison business."Prisons are big business. Over the last 20 years, the incarceration rate in the United States has tripled. There are 1.3 million people in prison today, generating $37.8 billion in economic activity.Many rural communities have competed for and received the economic benefits of a prison. "Not in my back yard!" has been replaced by "Prisons, please come!"Corporations have noticed that money can be made in prisons. Profits are sought selling everything from inmate long-distance service to commissary supplies. Vendors vie to provide products and services to prison management, from security hardware to construction management.Profit-making corporations contract with governments to operate prisons. Nonexistent 20 years ago, these private companies have 65,000 inmates in custody. This merger of punishment and profit has resulted in some shenanigans, such as competing corporate leaders making campaign contributions to well-positioned government officials.In one egregious case, a private prison accepted dangerous inmates without providing the necessary security, work and programs for them. In short order, two inmates were murdered and four escaped.Although most private prisons have not experienced such problems, there is always the concern that their managers will worry more about the bottom line than the quality of the service they provide. Private prison entrepreneurs claim that they can provide this service less expensively than government. This is a fiction, according to `Going Up The River'.Hallinan documents how "the drug war" and the hardening of public attitudes and political decisions about crime and drugs have fueled the explosive increase in prison populations.In the 1980s, the public demanded that something be done about the scourge of drugs and violent crime. People were impatient with what was thought to be lenient treatment of criminals behind bars.Lawmakers responded. Parole was eliminated. Sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences were established and have greatly increased the time served in prison, especially by drug offenders. More moderate voices were ignored.The prison boom began, and the "prison-industrial complex" was born. There is yet no end in sight.The economics are good for those on one side of the prison equation.Many politicians posture as being tough on crime, while others feel they must avoid another "third rail of politics" _ being soft on crime. Hallinan makes a compelling case that this confluence of economic and political interests will determine criminal justice and imprisonment policies in this country _ and undermine justice.We have had to go "up the river" to find places that will welcome all the prisons that had to be built. In this process, prison inmates, their families and their communities (disproportionately African-American and Hispanic) have been sold "down the river."The book details the degrading and inhumane conditions that exist in many prisons. The corrosive effect that prison work can have is explored, as exemplified by a female officer who liked her job but who thought the most difficult part was "not smiling."Hallinan found nothing of value in the prisons he visited.Rehabilitation of inmates has been a pipe dream. Though prison is the wrong place to try to change anyone, "not trying is even worse." In the end (thank goodness!), Hallinan expresses his belief, entirely unjustified by his book, that our society is capable of something more.The book explores the problems but not the possibilities. The author did not write about many parts of the "prison nation" where I have been.More than a few prisons are safe, secure and humane. They offer inmates opportunities to change for the better and prepare for a law-abiding life through work and programs. The hallmarks of staff interactions with inmates are professionalism and civility. Usually, inmates reciprocate with respect.Hallinan only reported the bad examples; had he experienced the good examples as extensively, he might be more optimistic.I have worked in prisons that produce "value" for society. In such places, all inmates are confined as punishment for criminal culpability. In such places, we reach out to the human capability of most inmates.As scholar and law professor Norval Morris has put it, prisons can only "facilitate change" in offenders. Ultimately, the needed transformation is up to them. In my experience, many inmates struggle for that, and more than a few succeed.What I found fascinating about working in prisons was the very human struggle with important issues of life: evil and good, guilt and punishment, sin and redemption, vengeance and forgiveness, alienation and belonging, intolerance and acceptance, fear and courage, hate and love.Some people succeeded in transcending their pasts and transforming themselves. Some succumbed to the negative side of life.Hallinan and I agree that many sentences of inmates serving time for drug crimes are excessive. These sentences support the prison boom, but they are detrimental to the cause of justice because they are unfair and disproportionate to the crime committed.A lot of women doing federal time could have their photos on posters for sentencing reform. Like the majority of women in prison across the country, they have experienced various forms of trauma in their lives _ usually sexual and/or physical abuse.Before they were criminals, they were victims. They turned to alcohol and/or drugs to escape from despair. They had few educational and vocational skills. As marginalized women, neither external nor internal resources to cope with the challenges they faced were there. To survive, they often developed relationships with men who turned out to be abusive and involved them in crime and drug trafficking.Within the troubled context of their lives, these women made choices that led them to prison, and prison they deserved. However, countless times I encountered inmates whose sentences should have been much less than they were _ sometimes only a fraction of what they were. Too many of these women, not dangerous or violent but convicted of drug offenses, have sentences of 20 years and more _ with no parole.Imprisonment is about justice.That justice is for society, for victims and for offenders themselves. The administration of justice may not be a thing of beauty, but it can have meaning and dignity. Sentences can be fair and proportionate. Inmates can be held accountable for their crimes and afforded opportunity and hope in prison. The needs of victims can be met through restoration more than retribution.However, justice is like beauty _ it exists in the eye of the beholder.Many eyes do see that we need to make changes, but too many others have not yet seen that light. Economics should not drive our decisions about justice, though justice has its economic aspects. Political expedience should not determine our prison policies, though the involvement of politicians is crucial.If our country were to cut back on its imprisonment binge, billions of dollars could be saved. Those resources could be spent on the prevention of crime and drug use, on reducing the demand in our country that causes so much of the world's drug trafficking, and on programs to help victims of crime.It is a political reality that more people need to see the ways in which our justice and prison systems can be improved and act on that understanding. Hallinan's book does a great service in that regard. It is a good place to start.Those to whom our country's criminal justice system and "drug war" are important ought to consider the wisdom of my father's favorite cartoon possum, Walt Kelly's Pogo: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."Prisons and their use as punishment are a product of their times. They reflect the culture and society of which they are a part.Justice requires that our prisons reflect the best of American values and culture.Joe Bogan is a Fort Worth writer.Source: Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (TX)Author: Joe Bogan, Special to the Star-Telegram Published: Sunday, August 26, 2001 Copyright: 2001 Star-Telegram, Fort Worth, TexasContact: letters star-telegram.comWebsite: Articles & Web Site:World Drug War Home Page Federal Drug Charges Rise Rate Dropped, but Sentencing Grew Tougher

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Comment #3 posted by Dan Hillman on August 27, 2001 at 15:04:15 PT
let's not forget...
...the violence that is part and parcel of the prison experience.  I was incarcerated for use and possession of cannabis in '92.  I got as far as the "indoctrination film" before being bailed out. The indoctrination film ended with slowly rolling credits over a fight scene featuring two inmates. The message was clear: "we want you to fight in here, in fact we consider it entertaining." On another occaission, I rode the greyhound bus into Seattle next to someone just released from prison.  It was clear that threats and intimidation were the standard operating procedure for this guy.  It didn't matter that I was larger than him, he had no other way of relating.  As I found another seat I wondered many hours it would be before he was back behind bars.
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Comment #2 posted by dddd on August 27, 2001 at 00:06:23 PT
too much
..There's too much material here to comment on,,,but,,,I think that a major aspect of the new prison craze,,,is the factthat it breeds a group of bitter,and disgusted group of people,whoare now aware of the gross injustice of the "justice" system in amerika.......The innocent,harmless person,who gets caught in thenet of mandatory minimums,,and absurd conspiracy laws,,emergesfrom the prison industrial complex,as a hardened,"ex-felon".."Treatment",,and "reform",,mean nothing when you have beenindelibly labeled as an "offender"!....and,,of course you meet somany other wonderfly bitter people while you're there....Howwonderful.......dddd
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Comment #1 posted by Rainbow on August 26, 2001 at 18:58:26 PT
Well I gfound out asscroft is so far away from reality it is not funny.A lady here in Rochester Minnesota was put in jail for 4 years for conspiracy to do something with a controlled substance.They (police) came into her apartment found her and 2 other men (sic) and then searched the aparment. In a back bedroom they found a small amount of crack cocaine and marijuana and a crack pipe.Wow I feel real safe knowing she is in jail. the paper did not say anything about the men.This is crazy and I think I will write a letter to the Post Bulliten (the local fish wrapper)Cheersrainbow
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