excerpts from the article

Fiscal Lockdown

by Julie Falk

Dollars and Sense magazine, July/August 2003


... The number of Americans behind bars grew from 1.4 million in 1990 to over two million in 2003. As the prison population swelled, the cost of incarceration grew, from $5 billion in 1978 to $40 billion in 2000.

Beginning in the 1980s, politicians in both l parties played on the public's fear of crime to build support for a conservative criminal justice agenda: abolishing parole, substituting mandatory sentencing guidelines for judicial discretion, and building more prisons. The mainstream media branded poor, young black men as irredeemable "superpredators"; in turn, state lawmakers created boot camps and passed statutes allowing children to be tried as adults. Drug offenders, many of them women caught in the web of complicated conspiracy cases, were given incomprehensibly long sentences. New three-strikes laws mandated life sentences for a whole host of both violent and non-violent offenders. The federal government rewarded states with prison construction grants for passing legislation requiring that offenders serve at least 85% of their sentences.

But mass incarceration is not only a result of politicians catering to a fearful public. It has corporate, bureaucratic and financial roots as well. A criminal justice system that incarcerates over two million people-more, per capita, than any other country in the world-carries staggering costs, but it can also generate government revenue and corporate profits. At the same time that the media and politicians were generating an increased fear of crime, business interests and conservative lawmakers began promoting incarceration as a guaranteed growth industry. The term "prison-industrial complex" was coined by activists and academics to describe this alliance of government and business entities that view incarceration not as a public function but rather as an opportunity to profit from a whole host of social, political and economic problems.

Incarceration is big business: criminal justice expenditures in 1999 totaled $147 billion nationwide. For-profit prison and prison health care corporations, prison transport services, and the construction industry, all of whom sell their services to state corrections departments, have a direct financial stake in this sector. The prison-industrial complex also includes the companies and government agencies that "hire" prison labor; the lobbyists who push for privatization of criminal justice and more prison construction; and the Wall Street firms like Merrill Lynch that underwrite prison construction bonds. Millions of Americans profit from incarceration as individuals through stock ownership or employment. In some states, unionized prison guards are a powerful component of the prison-industrial complex; in California the prison guards' union has been the governor's largest contributor in his past two elections.

In spite of the current fiscal crisis in the states, each of these interests is intact, and each one has an incentive to help perpetuate America's colossal criminal justice system.

Of course, the states themselves are the key players in the prison-industrial complex. While the costs of incarceration are enormous, state and local economies and their political representatives benefit in varying degrees by mass incarceration. Imprisonment provides jobs, the illusion of public safety, and low-cost labor.

Most significantly, perhaps, states have come to use prisons as a tool for rural economic development. In the past decade and a half, over 300 prisons have been built in rural communities from California to West Virginia. With the promise of jobs, tax revenue, population stabilization, and economic growth, rural communities-devastated by the loss of agriculture and local industry-compete for new prisons. (Towns are also induced to build prisons because prisoners count as part of their population in the Census; this means more government funding, and, in some cases, more political representation.) To attract a prison, impoverished communities offer incentives, such as tax breaks, free land, and new infrastructure, paid for by loans in the form of multi-million dollar bonds. As these towns routinely put themselves into debt in order to win contracts, they become dependent on the state or prison company to provide inmates to keep the prison open...

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