article below posted May 31, 2010
WA taxpayers pay a million to imprison a man who stole $151
Meanwhile privatization and budget cutbacks create playgrounds for rapists and huge social costs for the future
by Kathleen Murphy
f you're starting to think that incarceration in America is better than being homeless, think again.
As more and more programs for the poor are eliminated in America due to budget cuts, the only one left standing is the most expensive one of them all: prisons. Increasingly a privatized industry, prisons are also a growth industry in America, with a new prison opening every fifteen days over the last decade. Just in 2003, statistics from the Bureau of Justice recorded the building of prisons in America as costing $60 billion.
It is widely understood that the main priority of a corporation is to make as much profit as possible. This is no different for corporate prison operators like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) or GEO (formerly Wackenhut), to name a couple. The more prisoners there are in America, the better the profit margin is for these prison profiteers. Publicly operated prisons can also have similar fiscal motivations.
This situation has helped to create a growth in America's prison population to the point where the US. has the distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world. Out of 218 countries listed in the world prison rates from King's College of London, England, rates for the US are over 5 prisoners per 1000 population. In comparison, China has only about 1 prisoner per 1000.
cartoon by John Jonik
Numbers vary depending on the source, of course. The Pew Center's findings in March 2009 report that 1 in every 31 adults in America is under some form of correctional control (about 32 per 1000). Bureau of Justice statistics in their "Key Facts at a Glance" of correctional populations, estimates the total number of all persons on probation, parole, in prison and jail in 2008 to be at 7,308,200, or about 20 per 1000. By contrast, in 1980 when the Drug War was starting to get off the ground, the same figure was 1,842,100, or about 6 per 1000.
Prisons cost taxpayers a lot of money. The prison industry is putting America into a vice grip by depleting more and more of its public funds away from preventative measures, such as schools and assistance programs for those trying to overcome debilitating poverty. This results in a perpetual creation of new populations as fodder for the prison industry.
However, cutting costs inside the prison system has results that are far more costly in the long-term:
1. horrible health conditions inside the prisons that create health risks for society outside as well
2. more incarcerations of nonviolent mentally impaired people who do not belong in prisons and who come out with far worse mental impairments
3. a prison environment in which rapists are safe from punishment and allowed to rape at will
Rape is one of the most horrific, degrading prison experiences. Rape happens more in American incarceration situations than anywhere else. In 1996, as reported in Joel Dyer's book The Perpetual Prisoner Machine, the prison rape rates were 18 per minute. Even with this evidence available in 1996, President Bill Clinton in that same year signed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which was purported to "safeguard against frivolous lawsuits by prisoners."
Unfortunately, what it really did was provide protection for rapists and all other human rights abusers, particularly employees and operators of detention centers, by making it practically impossible for prisoners to file suit against these abuses. Fortunately, as reported by the Prison Legal News (25 August 2009), the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission recently concluded that the PLRA law blocks access to the courts for many victims of sexual abuse.
Despite the PLRA, and other heavy restrictions of the outside world's right to communicate with domestic prisoners, there have still been many exposures of the prison-rape epidemic, some of which were successfully brought to light in courtrooms throughout America by victim advocacy groups such as Prison Legal News (PLN), Human Rights Watch, the ACLU and others. They diligently document horrific abuses that occur on a regular basis in American domestic prisons.
It is important to keep in mind that these exposures are just the tip of the iceberg as there are many more abuses that are not exposed. In just one report of recent 2008-2009 convictions of prison and jail staff for sexual abuse from 39 states (posted at the PLN site 22 Feb 2010), the reporter, Gary Hunter adds an explanation that "it would easily be possible to publish a monthly magazine consisting of nothing but substantiated reports of the sexual assault of prisoners by their captors...."
While the situation is bad for adult prisoners, the situation for the juvenile prisoners is much worse.
Presently in America, if one is a child abuser and plays it smart, then working in a juvenile detention is plain common sense. Here is a brief synopsis of a report by David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow, in The New York Review of Books, posted 11 March 2010:
"For 16 months, children in the care of the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) were [allegedly] molested by two employees, Ray Brookins and John Paul Hernandez. The boys tried to tell members of the staff and also the TYC officials, by letter and through the school's grievance system. They did so knowing that they could be retaliated against by certain staff but their pleas were ignored by the TYC.... In 2005 the boys approached a volunteer math tutor who called the Texas Rangers and a sergeant Brian Burzynski came by that afternoon to investigate... finding semen samples all over the carpet, furniture, and walls of the office.... Brookins and Hernandez quickly resigned.
Mental and physical illness
The Texas Rangers forwarded the report to the local district attorney, Randall Reynolds but he did nothing. The TYC conducted its own investigation absolving itself of any wrong doing. Then the TYC superintendent, Lemuel "Chip" Harrison, who had ignored complaints of sexual misconduct (complaints numbering to 750 since 2000, but thought to underrepresent the extent of the abuse due to the children's fear of retribution if they complained) was promoted to director of all juvenile corrections of TYC. Brookins found employment at an Austin hotel and Hernandez moved on to become principal of a charter school in Midland. Neither of them yet to face trial, and, despite overwhelming evidence, they both claim innocence."
Dr. Terry Kupers has been a practicing psychiatrist since the 1960s and an established mental health consultant and expert on prisoner mental health issues. He reported in his book Prison Madness that because of the cutbacks in services for the mentally ill, many of them are ending up in prison where they are subject to conditions that worsen their psychiatric disorders. He reports that when mentally ill people—as well as nonviolent criminals with no prior mental illness—are imprisoned, they are brutalized so badly that upon release it is documented that many of them pose a worse threat to the public. As a consequence, their re-arrest rates keep rising.
To avoid repeating this expensive vicious cycle, Dr. Kupers strongly recommends that communities return to investing in humane programs for people, which produce better results than prison and are much less costly to taxpayers. He emphatically states that we must "put an end to prison overcrowding and STOP sending nonviolent and mentally disordered felons into prison yards with murderers and rapists."
Over the years, Kupers has witnessed the constant cutbacks—along with short staffing and gradually diminished basic health care—to the point where, by all accounts, healthcare is virtually unavailable to prisoners. This situation is documented in much more detail in a 2007 book called Prison Profiteers edited by PLN's Paul Wright. Inevitably, this creates major health hazards to the general public when it comes to those communicable diseases that flourish in overcrowded, unsanitary settings. Getting rid of overcrowding conditions would greatly alleviate these major health hazards to the public at large.
Three Strikes law
The implementation of the Three Strikes law is responsible for much of the prison overcrowding. Mandating life imprisonment sentences to any and all offenders, no matter what their crimes are, is proving to be a drastic mistake. In 1993, voters in Washington state were persuaded to pass a Three Strikes law. As reported by Paul Wright, in 1994 a 35 year old man put his finger in his pocket—pretending it was a gun—and robbed a sandwich shop of $151 dollars. He was arrested an hour later drinking a beer a block away.
His prior "strikes" were stealing $360 from his grandfather in 1986 and robbing a pizza place of $100. He is now in prison for life. His incarceration will cost taxpayers $20,000 to $30,000 per year (as estimated in 1994 prices), not including the original average cost of $54,209 to build one prison bed space. If he lives to be 70, the costs will be up to approximately $1 million (again, 1994 prices).
The Three Strikes law also makes the job of police work much more dangerous. As Paul Wright says, "a suspect, knowing that if convicted of petty theft will spend the rest of his life in prison has, quite literally, nothing to lose if he has to kill a few people to avoid arrest." Is there any one of us who wouldn't do the same after knowing what prison life has in store for you? This is not lost on the police. Wright quotes Seattle police Sgt. Eric Bardt as saying, "it now looks like some of these three strikes cases might try to get away or shoot their way out. Believe me, that's not lost on us. We're thinking about it."
It should come as no surprise that the union representing California's correctional officers (the CCPOA), supports the Three Strikes law. As one union officer put it, quoted in Dan Pen's report in the book The Celling of America, "This is the career... with Three Strikes and the overcrowding we're going to experience with that, we're going to need to build at least three prisons a year for the next five years. Each one of those institutions will take approximately 1,000 employees." But correctional employees are not the only ones who stand to benefit from prison expansion.
Making prisons yet more profitable
Prison profiteers are constantly devising ingenious ways to get more funding from taxpayers. Consider this one example from 1987. The California Department of Corrections (the CDC) developed a new policy for the Corcoran State Prison of forcing all rival groups together on the same exercise yard, resulting in a dramatic and rapid increase in prison violence. The CDC then used this new statistic to justify construction of the Pelican Bay Prison. This example barely scratches the surface of what still goes on behind closed doors today at great expense to American taxpayers (you can read more about this type of ongoing problem at www.prisonlegalnews.org
Then there's the profit being made from prison labor with companies like Microsoft, Victoria's Secret, Disney, the US Military, etc benefitting from the lowered costs of cheap prison labor, many of them disproportionally people of color (almost 63% of the nation's incarcerated are blacks and latinos, who only make up a quarter of the general population). Profiteering from prison labor was outlawed as result of the Great Depression because so many Americans were without jobs. But now prison labor has come full circle and America is back where its started with regards to prison labor.
The racist criminalization of crack cocaine, as compared to the far more lenient laws for using powder cocaine, is a major reason why so many people of color are imprisoned compared with wealthier cocaine users, mostly white, who get away with a slap on the wrist for using the exact same drug. With different cocaine laws applied to different types of people the Drug War is really just a cover for a war on people of color. But the Drug War especially deserves a mention because of the Marijuana laws.
As former president Jimmy Carter once said, "Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself." The War on Drugs started in 1980, the same year incarceration rates in America started rising. Marijuana laws are responsible for putting a lot of nonviolent offenders, mostly people of color, into prison. Despite the dangers of other drugs, like crystal meth, the main focus of the Drug War has always been marijuana. Even though marijuana has numerous documented medical uses, we are still bombarded with anti-marijuana publicity campaigns in our schools and media.
The growth of the prison industry is out of control in America and it doesn't have to be this way. In looking for better alternatives Dr. Kupers is impressed with prison systems in Denmark and the Netherlands. There is very little violence between the prisoners and correctional staff, and their commitment to one prisoner per cell is a major part of the reason why.
Our mainstream, or corporate, media hardly mentions any of the problems of prison-profiteering in America. The reason it has been allowed to reach extremes is that most American's don't know about it. Most Americans are decent people and would not tolerate this horrendous misuse of our tax dollars if they only knew.
Whenever American mainstream "news" does focus on "crime" it is always for ratings. The worse the crime the higher the ratings and—duh—the higher the ratings, the higher the profits. We all get manipulated into worrying that we'd better get "tough on crime" and build more prisons, and we consistently elect politicians who do just that. And that, for starters, needs to stop.
The most positive attitude that a person can have is to believe that problems can be solved. Naturally the first step towards solving any problem is knowing that they exist. Therefore, it is not a negative attitude to examine problems in America like prison profiteering.
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