Prison Instead of Princeton

Prison Instead of Princeton
Are for-profit prisons really keeping us safe?

Merchandizing Prisoners:
Who Really Pays for Prison Privatization?

By Byron Eugene Price
Praeger Publishers, 2006
ISBN: 0-275-98738-8
212 pp., $44.95

It costs approximately $22,000 per year to incarcerate each of the 2.2 million people in U.S. prisons. And since 2000, the total number of federal inmates in for-profit facilities has increased by 60 percent, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Is our society growing more violent? Or, as author Dr. Byron Eugene Price suggests, is the tremendous growth of the for-profit prison system creating a financial incentive to incarcerate more people, and thereby quietly driving public policy?

In Merchandizing Prisoners: Who Really Pays for Prison Privatization?, Price, an assistant professor of public administration at Rutgers University, sets out to prove that a humanitarian crisis is afoot, and its perpetrators can be found among the Fortune 500.

In the 1980s, state and local officials, struggling to overcome a highly publicized crime wave, rising immigration and a drug epidemic, tried to regain order by passing stiffer criminal penalties, resulting in a growing prison population and, inevitably, a demand for more prisons. Private industry recognized the opportunity and offered its services, promising that it could build and manage prisons cheaply and efficiently. State legislators accepted their proposals, and watched the jobs start flowing back into their states.

In economically depressed rural communities, a new prison became an event to be celebrated. Over time, companies such as Corrections Corporation of America, which designs, builds and manages prisons, and Wackenhut Corp., went public.

That chain of events has spawned a disturbing paradox. For corporations like CCA and Wackenhut, a decreasing crime rate appears to be bad for business. Almost by default, their economic interests stand at odds with those of communities across the country. And Price argues that, in the battle of wills, the public is losing.

Merchandizing Prisoners opens with an overview of the debate and the history of prison privatization. Price then examines whether private prisons are really more cost-effective and better managed than state or federally run prisons. He makes the case that in fact they are not, pointing out that prison guards are often encouraged to punish prisoners for minor infractions, as such punishments can extend prison sentences by 30 days — resulting in a financial bonus for the corporation.

“Mississippi built 16 new correctional facilities, including six for-profit prisons, in the 1990s. The state has built no new four-year colleges or universities in over 50 years. There are almost twice as many African-American men imprisoned in Mississippi (13,837) as in colleges and universities (7,330),” he writes.

According to the book, 49 percent of the nation’s prison population is Black and have less than a high school diploma.

One graph shows that by 2017, there will be more Blacks in prison (an estimated 2 million) than Blacks enslaved in 1860 (1.9 million). Price argues that “incarceration is the new slavery,” and prisons “are the new Jim Crow laws.”

Also disturbing is that many executives of prison corporations are active in conservative lobbying groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, which pushes tough-on-crime legislation.

Price makes a good case for the dangers inherent in making incarceration a for-profit business. The most powerful chapter exposes the trend towards speculative prisons — those that are built on the hope that they will be filled — eventually. The importing and exporting of prisoners from all over the country keep the cells filled and the money flowing. At one point in our history, philosophers argued whether the role of prisons was to punish or rehabilitate. Today, Price writes, the purpose of prisons is to make money for private companies; kick-start economies in depressed regions; and re-elect the politicians who solicited them. It is an uncomfortable domestic scenario, but one that makes Merchandizing Prisoners a provocative and timely
body of work.



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