Currently in the U.S. there are more convicted criminals than slaves half a century ago. One American in fifty is involved in the work of the prison system, because more than two million prisoners are in need of clothes, food, treatment, safe-keeping and shelter. Annual turnover of the industry exceeds $70 billion, and economists have even invented a special term “the Prison-industrial complex.”
“An unprecedented number of inmates is the same fundamental fact of American state structure, as well as the slavery in the mid-19th century,” says American essayist, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and author of “The Caging of America” Adam Gopnik. “It's hard to believe, but the number of black men who are serving today whether real or conditional sentence exceeds the number of slaves in 1850. And even worse, there are seven million people under the supervision of the U.S. correctional system. The United States has more people in prison today than the population of Stalin's Gulag Archipelago.”
However, as in the days of the Gulag, one positive thing exists. Prisoners can be used as a cheap or even free labor. After all, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits slavery and forced labor, contains a convenient clause “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
“Most people have seen the prison only in movies and believes that all day prisoners walk around the yard or play basketball,” John Hudson, who is serving a seven-year sentence in New York's Rikers Island correctional institution, says. “In fact, the bulk of the convicts should work constantly. The work is paid below the lower limit - 10 to 40 cents an hour. Such wage rates exist only in prisons, nowhere else. But you have the right to buy food in the prison shop. If you don’t fulfill the norm, you are in danger of being beaten and sent to the Protective Housing Unit that is completely isolated.”
Naturally, the company contracted by the prisons, don’t share this fact with the public. Nevertheless, over the years due to the use of prison labor the brands such as Chevron, Bank of America, AT & T, Starbucks, Walmart, IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Nike, Intel and other were mentioned.
However, global manufacturers are not the main players in the Prison-industrial complex. The so-called prison corporations that own or manage... the prisons, also control everything here. Incredibly, but about 10% of U.S. prisons are commercial enterprises aimed at the making a profit. Moreover, almost all prisons, opened since 2000, are privately owned.
“It all started, as usual, with the best intentions,” says Richard Smith, Communications Director of “In the public interest,” comprehensive resource center on privatization and responsible contracting. “Thirty years ago, someone determined that the state machine is not very effective in the prisons manage. If this function would be passed to private business organizations, they can save money and establish control in the advanced corporations. And it was implemented that way. Prison businessmen took up the duties relying on the economic theory, that is, took to reduce costs and profit maximization. But they don’t care of criminals’ correction, that is the main function of correctional institutions.”
Nevertheless, the first part of the plan to privatize prisons gave tangible effect. Cost optimization has led to a drastic reduction of prison staff, primarily the prison’s guards. After that inmates began to organize complete mess. The study of the American Civil Rights Union revealed that the level of violence in private prisons is 65% higher, than in the state prisons. Moreover, the guards are attacked there half as much again.
“Rikers Island has a bad reputation,” the prisoner John Hudson continues his story. “And it's true. Anyone can be punched in the kidneys by the guards or can be put in a punishment cell for any petty offense. The administration acts extremely tough to keep the situation under control. But it's still better than in private prisons, where guards provoke clashes between prisoners. They believe that it's better if the inmates put a knife into each other than into officers. The first period I served in the Arizona State Prison - Florence West (controlled by GEO Group - Editor’s note). Stabbings and killings occurred in our block almost every month.”
Many incidents happen in the private prisons, including drug trafficking, murder, rape, pimping guards, all kinds of harm, riots, escapes... A year ago, it came to light that the prison gang actually controlled Idaho prison. The guards could not cope with their duties and preferred to negotiate with the most brutal gang convicts. By the way, in the Gulag camps prisoners also were engaged in the safe-keeping, so there is nothing new in this practice.
Moreover, prison corporations don’t encourage all these violations, meanwhile particularly don’t oppose these incidents. Why, if it suits them? “For every crime a prisoner receives a new term,” Richard Smith explains. “That is, the time he has to serve in a private prison increases. In other words, the prison corporation will longer cash on it.”
The cynicism of modern prison system in the U.S. is in it. The state pays the prison corporations for each day that prisoner stays behind bars. That is the more convicts are in the country and the longer they are in prison, the more the prison companies make profit on it. Consequently, the U.S. correctional system has become a lucrative criminal system. As we know, all means are good to maximize profits.
For example, in 2008, a scandal shook the United States. Then it turned out that the owner of the children's private prisons in Pennsylvania paid extra money to judges, who had to pronounce stiff sentences upon adolescents. As a result, juveniles received real prison term for such crimes as ridiculing of the school director in a social network, penetration into the empty house and stealing a DVD from a supermarket. Meanwhile, the judge got $2.6 million for the conviction of two thousand teenagers.
If such incidents were isolated cases, the situation would not be so serious. But due to the U.S. tradition to merge the state and big business, profiting of prisoners has got a legislative support at the federal level. You can consider it a coincidence, but the largest prison corporation - Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) - was founded in 1983. After this the sharp increase in the number of prisoners in the United States has begun. Over the past 30 years, it has increased by 500%! As a result, CCA has become a huge monster that manages 67 prisons and earns &1.7 billion per year. The second largest U.S. corporation prison-industrial complex GEO Group (founded in 1984) has annual revenue of $1.6 billion and 96 smaller prisons.
“Prison corporations spend tens of millions of dollars on lobbying of the legislators at the federal and at state levels,” Richard Smith adds. CCA, for example, uses 70 lobbyists to promote the solutions in favor of private prisons and to actively influence the adoption of laws toughening the sentences for the crimes.
Under the prison corporations pressure the so-called Three Strikes law was passed. It has led to the thousands of broken lives. It mandates state courts to impose harsher sentences on habitual offenders who are convicted of three or more serious criminal offenses. In most jurisdictions, only crimes at the felony level qualify as serious offenses. Depending on the seriousness of the current and the prior crimes committed by the offender, the sentence can range from a minimum of 25 years to a maximum of life imprisonment. The isolation of recidivists was formal justification to adopt this law. The private prisons occupancy was the practical effect.
In case it doesn’t work... the prison corporations secured themselves against cells’ space availability. According to the center “In the public interest,” 65% of prison corporation’s contracts with the federal and state governments provide the so-called low crime tax. That is, in the case of private prisons occupancy less than 96% (in different contracts this figure varies from 80% to 100%; 96% is on average), a private prison receives additional compensation. For example, it has already cost Colorado $2 million.
But it is rather an exception. American prisons always don’t have enough available space. For example, in California the jails are 170% occupied, so the prison corporations have to transfer inmates to other states and even other countries. In recent years the deportation centers for illegal migrants have become the most profitable business. In such a way, the prison corporations have already reached the international level.
“In America business and politics is almost the same,” political commentator Steve Eisenberg says. “If you have influence in politics, don’t worry about your business. And now look at the stock exchange: during the last year Apple's stocks have fallen by 20%, while the GEO Group’s stocks, on the contrary, have increased by 20%.” Therefore, the prison corporations every year increase their profits, thereby increasing the funds on the lobbying of legislators who in turn provide the increasing of the prisoners’ number. Meanwhile, the prison corporations’ profit directly depends on their number.
Concurrently, multibillion income daily attract new corporation to join the Prison-industrial complex. This means that the operation of this inhuman mechanism is enhanced and it requires more people. However, even if the number of convicts would grow unabated (in 1980 the prison population was 1.8 million, in 2010 - 7.1 million), then by mid-century this figure will be 30 million inmates. The scales of Gulag Archipelago are pale before such a prospect, and the phrases “American swing” and “the most free country” become mockery.
However, the prison corporations prefer to assess the situation from the standpoint of market capitalism. There is no place for emotions, it's just business. The Prison-industrial complex only expands its production base. After all, if somebody sees there the reconstruction of the slave system abolished half a century ago, that is somebody’s problem. The prison corporations just cash on the persons “duly convicted of a crime.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 770 000 people, including 620 thousand guards, worked in the penal system in 2008. For comparison, 880,000 people worked at the same time in the U.S. Auto industry.
The massive use of prison labor began in the U.S. in 1860. After the Northerners’ victory in the Civil War, cotton planters of the southern states lost the slaves. Local authorities arrested yesterday's slaves for the lack of documentation and other minor charges and transferred them to the plantations as prisoners. It was done to offset the loss in the labor force.
Although African Americans make up only about 12% of the U.S. population, they make up almost 44% of the American prisons’ inmates. However, this figure varies greatly in different states. In Idaho and Montana have the smallest number of black prisoners (1.7% and 2% respectively), District of Columbia has the biggest number of prisoners (92.8%).