The Common Good
March-April 1998

Making Crime Pay

by Carol Fennelly | March-April 1998

For-profit prisons bring in the loot.

Lots of people are getting rich on crime these days, but it's not just the lawbreaking that's bringing in the loot. Prisons and the enterprises they generate are emerging as one of the country's growth industries.

With sentencing and parole laws putting a record one million Americans behind bars for longer periods of time, prison privatization is offering a huge profit opportunity. Unprecedented strains have been placed on already overcrowded state and federal prisons, which have in turn looked to private enterprise for help. Private prisons have the capacity to hold 107,500 prisoners, and the number continues to increase.

The notion of for-profit, privately operated prisons is an old one, enjoying a modern and rapidly growing rebirth. In the last century, small portions of some state systems were privatized, and in others entire state systems were turned over to private entrepreneurs. By the 1900s, however, widespread abuse and corruption had so infected the industry that reformers pressured government to once again take control of prisons.

The privatization of prisons raises some difficult ethical, moral, and legal questions. No federal laws exist to regulate private prisons. While 26 states house 154 of these facilities, only six states currently have laws in place to oversee their operation. When pressed, prison officials and politicians alike admit that private institutions are in a constitutionally gray area.

Who profits? The building trades are experiencing a huge windfall. Phone companies, providers of vending machines, and HMOs are all finding new markets in the burgeoning prison population. One phone company charges $22 for a collect 15-minute cross-country phone call, and provides a 35 percent kickback to the prison. They have a captive audience in prisoners who cannot carry cash in prison and must rely on collect calls. A single phone can gross $15,000 a year. Snack machines offer the staple food supply for visiting rooms in prisons. One provider has reported a doubling of sales each year.

To keep prisons—both public and private—financially self-supporting, prison officials are bringing private industry inside the walls, using captive (and therefore cheap) labor. During the 19th century, many prisons were able to show a surplus of funds as a result of the sale of goods produced by prison labor. In the first half of this century, as labor began to organize itself, several federal laws were passed to protect jobs on the outside from this kind of unfair competition. Today the laws are mostly ignored or circumvented.

In Texas 150 workers were laid off from a computer-board assembly plant so the company could move inside prison walls. The company owner noted, "Normally when you work in the free world you have people call in sick, they have car problems, they have family problems. We don't have that here." And, he added, inmates "don't go on vacation." Prison industry sales in 1994 totaled $1.31 billion.

WHILE AN ARGUMENT can be made for prisoners making productive use of their time behind bars, the labor exploitation involved rivals that in Third World nations. Proponents of prison industry argue that prisoners are able to earn wages, gain work skills, and learn the values of individual responsibility and productive labor.

A closer look reveals that while prisoner wages may be as high as $8 an hour, the prison keeps most of the money. More often than not the actual hourly wage for the inmate is less than 50 cents. Few transferable skills are actually learned in prison industries. The Texas computer-board plant operator admitted that outside prison walls immigrant women hold most of the jobs in this area. Prison officials claim that participation in prison employment is voluntary. However, prisoners are usually sanctioned for not working. Sanctions may include loss of privileges, solitary confinement, and loss of "good time," which in turn lengthens sentences.

In July 1997 Corrections Corporation of America, the largest of the private entrepreneurs, reported a six-month income growth of 86 percent and that it had earned $11.6 million in the previous three months. Because there is so much money at stake, an effective private prison lobby has grown up in Washington, D.C., and in state capitals across the nation, with likely impact on sentencing guidelines, parole rules, labor laws, and corrections budgets. The potential exists to create huge industry benefits at the expense of the public good.

Prisons no longer even pretend to care about rehabilitation, which they see as a threat to their revenue-producing ability. But prisoners, who Jesus listed among his beloved "least of these," need to be viewed as more than expanders of the bottom line, but as children of a merciful God. If we accept our nation giving up on more than a million of our citizens, it denies the potential for redemption—for them and for the rest of us.

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