By LENNOX FARRELL
According to education officials in the U.S., such as Lesley Morrow, past president of the International Reading Association of America, projecting future needs for prison population beds is based, in some states, on the reading scores of children in Grade Three.
Is this true? Are prison officials basing the need for future prisons on the failure rate of Grade Three children?
What is no myth is that the exponential growth of a prison industrial complex in the United States is directly linked to the ending of slavery in the 19th century.
While the privatizing of prisons in the U.S. was initiated earlier during the American Revolution when Britain, without enough jails to ‘house undesirables’, used the offshore hulks of ships, it was following the end of slavery, after the Civil War, that concerted efforts by entrepreneurs to build private prisons took off.
This was because, beginning in 1868 and continuing into the 20th century, to find labour replacements for the former slaves, farmers and others pushed for ‘convict leases’ to be issued to private parties to supplement their workforce.
San Quentin, one of America’s most notorious prisons, was one of these privatized complexes.
A further incentive for building these complexes occurred during the 1980s when, with a burgeoning prison inmate population resulting from the ‘War on Drugs’, federal and state governments increased the contracting out of these facilities.
While the U.S. had long had a history of contracting out specific services to private firms, including medical services, food preparation, vocational training, inmate transportation, etc., the increased use of incarceration, prison overcrowding and the subsequent rising costs became increasingly problematic for local, state and federal governments.
In response to this expanding criminal ‘justice’ system, private business interests seized the opportunity for expansion and, consequently, private-sector involvement in prisons moved from the mere contracting out of services to the contracting for the complete management and operation of entire prison complexes.
These prison industrial complexes – in states like Louisiana with prison populations of 80 per cent African American (males and females) – also offered publicly traded stocks. In the state of Tennessee, in 1985, one group of entrepreneurs obtained one of these complexes for $200 million. With occupancy rates generally above 130 per cent, ‘housing’ inmates and making profits thereby are usually blue chip.
To put things in historical context, in every instance and era during which prisons have increasingly been privatized, be it in the U.S., Britain, Australia etc., the common denominator has been first, the passing of stronger ‘law and order’ legislation; then increased periods of incarceration with the result being increased inmate populations needing to be ‘housed’ and, finally, with public-sector costs to be kept low being linked with the high profits returns for private-sector.
Therefore, in America between the 19th century ending of slavery and the 20th century War on Drugs, was created the global template of for-profit prison industrial complexes.
In fact, in many U.S. states like New York, there is a rural-urban racial divide, linked to a rural prison/urban criminal system cooperation. Unofficially, urban court systems provide inmates, mostly unemployed Blacks and Hispanics, to be ‘housed’ in rural prisons, thus guaranteeing employment for rural constituents, mostly White. New York police officers have ‘arrest quotas'; quotas publicly known to be subject to vast racial abuse.
The prison industrial complex, like the more profitable military industrial complex, is another cherished and bitterly contested source of job creation in rural America. Elected and other public officials rise and fall based on their ability or inability to successfully locate these enterprises in their electoral districts.
And what about Canada?
The mandate of the Harper Conservatives to reform the criminal justice system is two-fold. On one hand, their mandate proposes, for example, making parole less attainable. Opponents estimate that this will increase prison populations by 20 per cent. The mandate also proposes finding ‘opportunities for savings including through physical plant realignment and infrastructural renewal’.
A key advisor to federal Minister of Justice, Rob Nicholson is former MPP Rob Sampson who, as Minister of Corrections in the Mike Harris Conservative government, launched Canada’s first privatized prison complex, the Penetanguishene-based Central North Correctional Centre, which was later closed under a succeeding provincial government.