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11. Private Prison Expansion Becomes Big Business

Source: TURNING THE TIDE, Title: “The Prison Industry and The Global Complex,” Date: Summer 1998, Authors: Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans

SSU Censored Researcher: Travis Duncan
SSU Faculty Evaluator: Linda Lopez

Private prisons are one of the fastest growing sectors of the prison industrial complex. Under contract by the government to run jails and prisons, and paid a fixed sum per prisoner, corporate firms operate as cheaply and efficiently as possible to insure a profit. This means lower wages for staff, no unions, and fewer services for prisoners. Substandard diets, extreme overcrowding, and abuses by poorly trained personnel have all been documented as practices of this private business approach to incarceration.

The “need” for more prisons was created in the 1980s, say the authors, when many businesses in the United States decided to take their factories out of the country, seeking higher profits and lower wages. Most seriously hurt by these plant closures and layoffs were African-Americans and semi-skilled workers in urban centers. Both a drug economy and the international prison industrial complex have filled the gaping economic hole left by the exodus of jobs from the U.S. cities. Currently 1.8 million people are behind bars in the U.S. Many who once made a living wage are now making only 22 cents per hour from behind prison walls.

For those who have invested in private prisons, say the authors, prison labor is like a pot of gold. There are no strikes, no unions, no unemployment insurance, or worker’s compensation. Prisoners can now be found doing data entry for Chevron, telephone reservations for TWA, raising hogs, shoveling manure, and sometimes making lingerie for Victoria’s Secret.

Investment houses, construction companies, architects, and support services such as those which provide food, medical supplies, transportation, and furniture, all profit by prison expansion, say Goldberg and Evans. Investment firm Smith Barney is partial owner of a prison in Florida. American Express and General Electric have invested in private prison construction in Oklahoma and Tennessee. Communication giants such as AT&T, Sprint, and MCI are getting into the act as well; gouging prisoners with exorbitant rates for phone calls, often six times the normal long distance charge.

Small businesses are now competing with the prison industry. Many small furniture businesses are closing due to the cheap labor provided by UNICOR, the federal prison industry corporation. UNICOR pays 23 cents per hour, and also has the inside track on all governments contracts. In another case, U.S. Technologies sold its electronics plant in Texas, leaving 150 workers unemployed, and opened in a nearby prison six weeks later.

With the transformations in the global economy that have occurred over the past two decades, the authors say, wage decreases and standards for workers have suffered. Privatization of prisons contributes to this cycle as the prison industrial complex rapidly becomes a primary component of the U.S. economy.

UPDATE BY AUTHORS EVE GOLDBERG AND LINDA EVANS: “1.8 million and counting. While the corporate media was looking the other way, mass incarceration became a reality in the U.S. About one in every 150 citizens is now behind bars. The Prison Industrial Complex is becoming the defining institution of our era.

“One prison story did make headlines: At California’s Corcoran State Prison, guards organized ‘gladiator’ fights between rival gang members—then shot the fighting inmates dead. Luckily, courageous guards blew the whistle; the father of a slain inmate sued; and for now the Corcoran killings have ceased.

“Most prison stories, however, never make the news. Pennsylvania and California have passed laws denying prisoners the right to speak with the media. Already muzzled by this gag rule, journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, now on death row, will be silenced forever by execution unless popular support can stop it. Thousands more are locked away in ‘control units’—tiny isolation cells commonly used to punish inmates who file law suits against prison officials, participate in work stoppages, or generally ‘speak up.’

“But the other half of the story, also being ignored by the mainstream media, is the rapid growth of a movement to confront prison issues. Grassroots groups are springing up everywhere. A 1998 national conference called ‘Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex’ drew over 3,000 participants to University of California Berkeley.”

A good place to find out what’s happening and how to get involved is the Prison Activist Resource Center Web site: http://www.prisonactivist.org/.

Some other organizations are:

The Prison Moratorium Project, Tel: (212) 427-4545 and (510) 594-4060
California Prison Focus (human rights watch group), Tel: (415) 821-6545
Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Tel: (202) 457-5790
Jericho Amnesty Campaign (freedom for political prisoners), Tel: (323) 294-3836
CURE (prison reform), Tel: (202) 789-2126.”