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Costs and Corruption

Building and operating prisons is expensive. For the numerous prisoners sentenced for crimes of subsistence-such as stealing food when hungry-the provision of food and shelter to meet these needs outside of prisons would be far more cost-effective and humane than feeding and caging them as prisoners. Furthermore, prisons create a class of people in need of further help from society upon release, and do not address the need to build skills and resources for self-sufficiency among the communities most in need, ultimately driving up the social costs of prison yet further.

But not everyone is unhappy with expensive prisons. Prison guard unions are notorious for lobbying for tougher sentencing laws, new prison projects, and higher wages. This creates a dangerous positive feedback as each prison expansion increases their membership and influence. In California, for example, prison guard unions were the number one contributor to the election campaigns of former governor Gray Davis, under whom California's spending on prisons increased by hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

Even worse are private prison operating companies such as Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenhut Corporation. These businesses contract with governments to manage prisons, literally making a profit every time another person is sent to jail. And as the prison population in their hands increases, the influence of the prison operators grows. Increasingly, these companies are offering privatized design, construction, and financing packages to government bodies, and consistently removing the opportunity for public oversight. Accountability for prison conditions under privatization is also greatly reduced, as private prison operators have been essentially granted immunity from federal prosecution.

Prison labor is also a valuable commodity. Many Americans are not aware than the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery, allowed slavery to continue "as punishment for a crime," leading to conditions of effective slave labor on prison work gangs well into the twentieth century. Even without forced labor, today's prison laborers have few rights as workers, little to no protection of their on-the-job health and safety, and can be beaten or worse over labor disputes. After state take-backs, prisoners earn an effective rate so far below minimum wage that prisons compete with overseas and sweatshop manufacturing of low-value goods such as shoes, clothing, and uniforms. While these jobs make a mockery of the idea that prison work can provide valuable job training, they sometimes allow substantial profits to accrue to the employers of prison workers, creating yet another vested interest in increasing the number of prisoners. The largest employer of prison labor is the Federal Prison Industries corporation, Unicor, whose largest customer is the U.S. Armed Forces.

In summary, the expense of prison operations has the paradoxical effect of creating large groups with a vested interest in expanding the prison system even further. Many scholars of the field term this group the "prison-industrial complex," operating, as it does, with public funds but without public oversight, much like the military-industrial complex. Both these groups take public financial resources that could be used to much better ends such as schools, community facilities, local economic development, and public health measures that build sustainable communities in which real personal security is possible. Given limited resources to pursue all these building programs, for ADPSR, the choice of which side to support is clear.

Copyright 2004 ADPSR unless otherwise noted.