Prisons as jobs programs

According to the latest federal jobs report (see Bloomberg news analysis, here), the American economy shed tens of thousands of public school teaching positions last month, casualties of shrinking state and local budgets.

But at least we have one growth industry that promises a continuous supply of new jobs: Building and staffing prisons. If we need any more evidence of the insanity prompted and enabled by the Great Recession, we can stop here and take a long look.

Berlin, New Hampshire

Kathy McCormack of the Associated Press (here, via Yahoo) reports on how the tiny city of Berlin, New Hampshire, is welcoming a new federal medium-security prison as a source of jobs and a spur to the local economy. Even though the prison isn’t scheduled to open until next summer, the construction work already is providing business:

“There are some people within the community that still don’t like the federal prison, that don’t think it’s going to do anything for us,” said Diana Nelson, who works at the Berlin office of the state Department of Employment Security.

“But I’ve seen this project since Day 1, and I saw what just the construction workers coming in have done for the local economy — they’re buying cars, eating in the restaurants, Dunkin’ Donuts,” she said. “It’s little stuff, but they’re here and they’re spending money.”

The prison itself will provide about 200 new jobs to New Hampshire workers, adds McCormack. Designated to house mostly drug and weapons offenders, it will infuse an estimated $38 million annually into the local economy, which has been hard hit by sharp declines in manufacturing work.

Not-so-hidden agendas

Berlin is just one example of this growth industry. Another prominent trend is the emergence of privately-run prison management companies, which typically deliver both senior managers and security personnel, while promising a cost savings in terms of public expenditures.

If you’re smelling a hidden agenda, you sniffed right. Investigating for DiversityInc magazine, Sam Ali, Luke Visconti and Barbara Frankel report on the private-sector prison industry and its implications for immigration and civil rights (link here):

In this exposé of America’s prison system, DiversityInc examines the rapid growth of privately run prison operators and what is fast becoming the next dark chapter in the ever-expanding prison industrial complex: immigrant detention. What are the racial implications? And why has anti-immigration sentiment helped private prisons make a fortune?

…Critics say that human-rights violations and physical and sexual abuse of inmates flourish in privately run prisons and detention centers because they are closed to outside scrutiny, allowing guards and officials to act with impunity.

America’s devotion to imprisonment

America is known around the world for harsh sentencing laws that result in one of the highest incarceration rates among western nations. But don’t just take the word of this self-confessed liberal. Instead, listen to the solidly conservative Economist magazine, which consistently has criticized American rates of imprisonment, such as in this July piece, “Too many laws, too many prisoners“:

Justice is harsher in America than in any other rich country. Between 2.3m and 2.4m Americans are behind bars, roughly one in every 100 adults. If those on parole or probation are included, one adult in 31 is under “correctional” supervision. As a proportion of its total population, America incarcerates five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany and 12 times more than Japan. Overcrowding is the norm. Federal prisons house 60% more inmates than they were designed for. State lock-ups are only slightly less stuffed.

We’ve got it backwards

At a time when our infrastructure is severely in need of repair, we’re handing over tax dollars to private companies to lock up more people. We’re laying off schoolteachers and hiring more prison guards.  And how ironic: Over time, fewer jobs and less funding for schools will fuel the need for more prisons. Talk about misdirected priorities…

7 responses

  1. God, this is shocking. They should be focusing on adding teachers in schools and colleges who provide psychological support to the children and build their ethics. 1:100 or 1:31 are not good ratios for any country. Total revamping of education system is required rather than adding more prisions.


  2. Two points need to be made here. The first: If anyone has watched Gangland when the topic is American prisons, they can’t seriously claim that it is only the “privately run” prisons that experience the hienous interpersonal violence that you speak about. Don’t forget the prison is a place where criminals get sent.
    The second point is: Liberal are always complaining that we (American) are too violent. Well, if that is true should the punishment fit the crime? Yet the average time in prison for those who have been convicted of a Capital crime is less that 25 years. If our sentencing is so harsh, why are there so many repeat offenders in those prisons – after 3 & 4 convictions?

    • I think you’re missing the point. The problem isn’t sentences for violent offenders, many of whom I agree should be kept off the streets. America’s overcrowded prison population is due to excessively harsh sentences for non-violent crimes. Getting caught with a modest amount of the wrong drug can land a person in prison for years longer than if they had violently assaulted someone.

      • Say a person received a slap on the wrist for getting caught with the wrong drug. Okay, I’ll bite, let’s say he now gets into a vehicle and kills or maims a person and/or a family. Oops. Now we “put” him behind bars because he did a really bad thing, and how many lives are ruined because of his first non-violent crime… ?

      • Actually, the cause of the death/injury is that he got into the car and caused the accident under the influence of a drug, not that he was under the influence. For that he should do time. Under your reasoning, we should ban alcohol too, as it certainly is the cause of more mayhem than people say, smoking pot. (But we tried that with Prohibition, didn’t we?)

    • Reducing punishments for many forms of drug possession would be more advisable. I do see the illegality of pot vs. the legality of alcohol use as being a monstrous inconsistency given that alcohol abuse has led to a lot more mayhem than virtually any other substance, but I’m on the fence re decriminalization of pot. I speak as someone who doesn’t drink or use drugs — just sayin’ that we should at least be consistent.

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