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The Prison-Industrial Complex

Updated on March 27, 2013
Growth of US Prison Population, 1920-2006.
Growth of US Prison Population, 1920-2006. | Source
Inmates at Orleans Parish Prison in Louisiana.
Inmates at Orleans Parish Prison in Louisiana. | Source

You’ve probably seen some of the TV shows on various cable networks that dramatize or exploit prison inmates for ratings. Obviously, these shows aren’t going to spend a lot of time on the mundane, mostly harmless inmates that either had a terrible lawyer or don’t want to cause any trouble while they’re serving their time. The emphasis is going to be on the hard cases—the pathologically violent, the lifers, the sociopaths, and the fringe. The people in the sensationalistic prison voyeur shows aren’t the majority of the prison population, they’re the outliers. The majority of the prison population in America is composed of people who grew up in limited circumstances, failed to steer clear of bad influences, fell prey to temptations and bad influences, and didn’t have access to effective representation in the criminal justice system.

In downstate Illinois, many communities depend upon a steady flow of inmates from Chicago to fill prisons in fading small towns. Illinois has a string of prisons along its Interstate highways and train lines, including Joliet, Dwight, Pontiac, and Lincoln along I-55; Kankakee, Effingham, Big Muddy River, Marion (federal), and Tamms on I-57; Danville, Jacksonville, and Decatur on I-72/74; and West Moline and Sheridan on I-80. In many of these rural downstate communities, prison work is just about the only way for non-college graduates to find a living wage outside of agriculture.

The vast majority of the inmates in Illinois prison facilities are African-American and Hispanic residents of underserved neighborhoods in Chicago, places with substandard educational facilities, few job prospects, and urban poverty on an unimaginable scale. The irony of the status quo is that many Illinois prison jobs have been created or maintained specifically to provide the mostly White residents of fading downstate towns an escape from the substandard educational facilities, few job prospects, and rural poverty of an unimaginable scale they face in their own communities.

Illinois has one of the least equitable school funding schemes of any state in the nation. State funding for schools is weak, and the majority of school funding comes from property taxes. As a result, wealthy suburban Chicago schools are particularly well-funded—among the absolute best in the nation-- while urban and rural schools are starved for basic resources. Adoption of a state lottery in the 1970s was supposed to have alleviated this imbalance, but instead the standard state funding was funneled into other areas while the lottery proceeds were used to replace the previous state baseline funding.

Illinois is by no means alone in this pattern. California is being bankrupted by their prison population. Many states in the South have prison populations nearly double the per capita of northern states. It’s estimated that over 30% of African-American males have had some experience with the criminal justice system. Overall, the United States has approximately 2.3 million people currently in prison—that’s about 1% of the adult population, and many hundreds of thousands more are ex-offenders limited in their potential to fully rejoin society.

Prison labor in the 1920s.
Prison labor in the 1920s. | Source

Furthermore, there is a great deal of money to be made off of the current system of criminal justice in America. For-profit private prison corporations such as Corrections Corporation of America (NYSE: CXW) make big profits, actively lobbies for punitive legislation, and trades on the New York Stock Exchange. Skilled criminal defense attorneys sell their abilities to those who can afford it; private companies like Securus operate outsourced phone call operations that make enormous profits from the families of inmates who try to call their loved ones. Illinois Correctional Industries (ICI) sells goods made by prisoners and earns gross revenues in excess of $10.2 million.

It’s well known that it costs the state much more to house an inmate than it does to send him or her to college. The court and criminal defense expenses are astronomical. Substance abuse programs show great return on their investments, both in terms of dollars and their effects on raising a next generation ready to succeed in society. And yet the United States now leads the world in percentage of people incarcerated or part of the criminal justice system. But we are ideologically stuck in a political posture that pays more reward to vengeance than valor, more reward to retribution than rehabilitation.

This perverse cycle is one that continuously feeds on itself. Lack of educational prospects leads directly to participation in crime or the handy option of becoming part of the law enforcement regime; deterioration of communities because of poor schools leads to more crime or the inescapable option of prison jobs as an economic development tool. Stiffer sentencing laws and underfunded or non-existent anti-recidivism programs ensure a steady flow of new inmates. And the cycle continues on, unimpeded by recognition of the larger inefficiencies, squandered lives, wasted resources, or stunted potential of the men and women dragged in by the downward swirl.

One would immediately assume that liberals would have a powerful interest in pursuing justice and education for African-American and Latino constituents. One would also assume that representatives of largely conservative rural areas would also have an interest in improving education and moving beyond depending on urban crime for jobs. Although prisons might be outsourced to private corporations, the incarceration is still done in the name of government, and therefore something conservatives should be leery about given their stated propensity for limited government. Yet the animosity and political one-upmanship between liberals and conservatives is apparently stronger than the urge to solve these enormous problems that affect millions of our citizens.

There is a great opportunity for political leaders in rural communities to partner with their urban counterparts to end the downward cycle of incarceration and inmate management. They could easily form a partnership and turn to a more equitable system that allows more opportunity and innovation that would benefit both constituencies. Stop the privatization of prisons for profit, provide a reasonable statewide baseline for educational investment in our children, end incentives to incarcerate, create incentives to innovate, and use our infrastructure to integrate instead of isolate.

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