When the prison boom goes bust

By Alan Bean

Scott Henson’s Grits for Breakfast blog offered a couple of terrific posts over the weekend.  “Private prisons and faux privatization” was inspired by a Forbes piece in which E. D. Kain asserts that running prisons is a government responsibility even if the work is subcontracted to a private prison company.

Thus any ‘privatization’ that occurs is simply the transfer of the provision of a government service (in this case, incarceration) to a private contractor. The contractor still operates with the full force of the law. In other words, it’s still government, just government-for-hire or for-profit government.

If there is any saving to the tax payer it is only because private prisons pay their workers less than state-run prisons.  Since this translates into less capable workers nothing of value is gained and much is lost.

“Texas prison  boom going bust” argues that county commissioners in small Texas towns can no longer build lock-ups far exceeding local needs on the assumption that a steadily growing prison population will fill the excess beds.

Jail-bed supply significantly exceeds demand statewide. With the exception of immigration detention, the bubble has burst. As has, hopefully, the “jail as profit center” myth among Texas county commissioners.

Prison privatization and the proliferation of the The Texas Gulag are two of the primary symptoms of America’s failed attempt to make crime pay.  Public officials have believed for years that everybody wins when we lock up more people this year than we did last year. Small towns get jobs; private prison companies slash wages and rake in profits, politicians get campaign contributions from the private prison industry and jobs in that sector when they leave politics.  Who could ask for anything more?

This perverse logic only works so long as the prison population is rapidly expanding, as it has since 1980.  When incarceration rates flat-line, incarceration loses the luster of a growth industry.  Incarceration has created an economic lemming stampede reminiscent of the recent housing bubble.  When you’ve got more fancy houses on the market than families who can afford to live in them you’ve got a problem.  When you’ve got more prison cells (and prisons) than the public safety needs of the nation justify, something’s got to give.

These economic realities explain why it is so difficult to inject a modicum of sanity into the criminal justice debate.  Too many people profit from the status quo.  No state rep, judge or district attorney ever got elected by calling for less incarceration and shorter sentences.  Cash-strapped communities will fight to the death to keep their local prison.  Everybody profits from tuff-on-crime policies.

Who profits if we dismantle the machinery of mass incarceration?   Poor people, mostly.  As Grover Norquist and the small government boys suggest, mass incarceration means higher taxes.  But so do the alternatives to mass incarceration.

Suppose every politician in America woke up tomorrow convinced that the prison population must be cut in half.  What would we do with all the abandoned prisons?  Would jobs be waiting for all the unemployed prison guards?  How would politicians replace the votes they have reaped by advocating punitive policies; how would they replace the campaign contributions they have received from the prison lobby?  We probably wouldn’t need to axe half of the prosecutors and defense attorneys currently employed by the criminal justice system (both sides of the legal process are hopelessly overworked), but thousands of attorneys would suddenly be out of work.

And what would we do with the million or so inmates who would be back on the streets?  Do we have jobs for these people?

Mass incarceration is our society’s response to an over-supply of unskilled people and an under-supply of low skill jobs.  The war on drugs exploits the fact that desperate economic times produce underground (that is, illegal) economies.  When there aren’t enough legal jobs on offer, we  wait for people to cross the line.  Will underground economies proliferate if we empty the prisons?  How could it be otherwise?

This is why Friends of Justice talks about a new moral order rooted in a vision of the common good.  The times demand it.  The punitive consensus that has controlled public policy decisions for three decades no longer makes sense, but the costs associated with more compassionate policies will staggering.  America has too many unskilled people and not enough low skill jobs.  If mass incarceration ultimately makes things worse, what do we propose as an alternative?  We must provide meaningful work for broken people.  The fact that a public addicted to blame-the-victim rhetoric isn’t currently ready to pay the price changes nothing.

A lasting solution demands a new moral vision; a new moral vision needs a movement.

2 thoughts on “When the prison boom goes bust

  1. Thanks, Susan. We are heading back to Mississippi in a coupe of weeks and will be spending time with Margaret Block.

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