The Big Business of Prisons

The Caging of America is a thoughtful and very disturbing look at the American prison system.  As Americans we tend to think of ourselves as civilized and even quite religious. Christianity itself embraces not only justice, but justice tempered by mercy and forgiveness.  Yet one has to wonder if mercy and forgiveness have any role in the big business of the American “correctional” system?  One has to wonder what is wrong with a society that seems not only to mete out harsh punishments such as long sentences disproportionate to the crime and the isolation of solitary confinement, but also to do so in such numbers and with such frequency.

Of the many, many troubling issues Adam Gopnik’s commentary addresses, what jumped out at me most is the link between private, for-profit enterprise and US prisons. I’d always thought of prisons as a necessary function of government, something undertaken for the common good and safety of society, whose purpose was not only to punish but also to rehabilitate. I’d thought of prisons as something we would willingly do without if the lesser nature of humanity were diminished in the ongoing creation of a more just, peaceful, and humane society.  Oh, how naive I am! This quotation form the article says it all:

No more chilling document exists in recent American life than the 2005 annual report of the biggest of these firms, the Corrections Corporation of America. Here the company (which spends millions lobbying legislators) is obliged to caution its investors about the risk that somehow, somewhere, someone might turn off the spigot of convicted men:

‘Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. . . . The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.’

Brecht could hardly have imagined such a document: a capitalist enterprise that feeds on the misery of man trying as hard as it can to be sure that nothing is done to decrease that misery.

Could there be any greater affront to Justice itself than a business whose success is linked to crime and a system that seeks to keep as many people locked up for as long as possible, as cheaply as possible??

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