It may be that the push toward privately operated prisons does not arouse you greatly and, boy, do I understand. There’s so much, too much that arouses our fear and anger over what we see as capitalism’s creeping and creepy take-over of our civic sphere.
I, however, was in a sense once directly confronted by the question of turning prisons over to corporations. Here’s what happened:
In the 1980s, I was working for Malcolm Forbes.
A major function of my part-time job was taking down his editorials, which he dictated most mornings starting at 8:30 a.m. This worked out well for me since my circadian rhythm renders me semi-comatose and speechless until maybe noon.
All I had to do was sit there as Malcolm rocked back in his office chair with his eyes closed and thought up what he wanted to say in his editorial.
As I’ve written before, Malcolm did not express himself and his opinions without being prompted by editorials and news from a limited number of other sources: the Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine. That day he had a clip from one of those journals praising one particular prison corporation. He jumped on the bandwagon, dictating an editorial in support of private corporations running prisons.
Then, as was his occasional wont, he turned to me and asked, “Don’t you think so?”
It was a rhetorical question. He didn’t care what I thought. He didn’t need my agreement. And usually I didn’t need to comment.
But that day I did. “No, actually. I don’t agree.” He looked mildly surprised. He asked why.
I said, “I could explain but I think it’d take longer than a minute and I don’t think you have the patience to listen for more than a minute.”
He actually blushed a little and said, “No, no — go ahead. Take all the time you need.”
I did. It didn’t take much longer than a minute and later I was fairly proud of myself that I was able to verbalize my opinion on my feet, so to speak, and so tersely. Here’s more or less what I told him:
I saw the purpose of corporations as utterly separate from the purpose of government. The corporate goal is to make a profit, not to establish or apply moral judgment. But prisons exist to punish people for crimes against the rest of us. They’re about right and wrong — morals. And I viewed the application of morals as the province solely of government.
I thought then and still think that our moral consensus in conceiving of laws regarding crime and punishment must belong entirely to government and should never be handed over or criss-crossed with a corporate profit motive.
Today we learn, in violation of any moral sense, that private prison corporations have taken over the “management” of camps for undocumented immigrants — not criminals — and are forcing these people to work as serfs for a dollar an hour.
That’s the problem in a nutshell with corporate-run prisons: their constitution is a profit and loss sheet.
For Nancy MacLean, the corporate takeover of prisons is a part of the Koch Bros stealth move to turn most aspects of our government over to private enterprise. She writes in Democracy in Chains [my bitter bolding]:
Just as the radical right seeks, ultimately, to turn public education over to corporations, so it pushes for corporate prisons. The mission seems important enough that Alexander Tabarrok, a GMU [George Mason University, a Koch-supported “educational” venture inculcating mediocrity along with its “libertarian” dogma] economist then moonlighting as research director for the Koch-funded Independent Institute, issued a whole book on the subject in 2003, with the coy title Changing the Guard. “We now know that private prisons can be built more quickly, operated at lower cost, and maintained at a quality level at least as high as government-run prisons,” Tabarrok announced. While warning of “special interest groups, in particular the correctional agencies and the prison guard unions” that push for more prison spending, he neglected to note how the profit motive could lead private prison corporations to push for tougher sentencing to drive up prison populations and to cut costly items such as job training and substance abuse counseling.
In one emblem of the perverse incentives for-profit prisons have created, a Pennsylvania judge was convicted in a “cash for kids’ scheme” in which private detention centers paid judges $2.8 million in kickbacks for sentencing thousands of children to their facilities. With no rights or collective voice and few allies, detained immigrants have proven to be even more ideal commodities for a reliable cash stream to such corporations, so lucrative that one recent report on the facilities that house them bore the title “Banking on Detention.”