Why Prison is Profitable

photo by Lauriel

by Ahjamu Umi

I wrote my Master’s Thesis on the politics of imprisonment and comparative economics. The imprisonment portion of the 70 page research centered on the state of California, where I lived at the time, and the 160,000 people who are imprisoned there. My research confirmed the obvious facts. Eight out of ten people in prison in California are there for non-violent drug related crimes. And out of that 80% incarcerated for drug related crimes, 90% of those who participated in the 2000 elections proposition 36 program that increased funding for drug offenders, successfully participated and completed that program before funding for the program was cut in 2003. Success here is defined as no further drug arrests and no recidivism, i.e. no returning to prison. Some of the more unconventional trends my data revealed are that 44% of those convicted on third strikes in California are Black and 85% of those third strike crimes are non-violent. What was also revealed is the staggering rise of women who are being incarcerated.

Still, nothing I discovered was more shocking than the high level of sophistication that has developed in the prison system as it relates to utilizing inmates for low wage labor. In the 1990s, the state of California initiated a program called the Joint Venture Program. That program offered private companies low rent contracts to build facilities on government prison land in order to employ inmates to work in the production of their products. These companies were offered impressive tax breaks for participating in this program. The roll call of companies that participated is full of familiar names like Chevron, Dell Computer, Wal Mart, Kmart, and Trans World Airlines. In fact, from 1991 until 1994, if you made a phone reservation for TWA, chances are an inmate took your credit card information and made your reservation. If you wore Lee Jeans, an inmate probably stitched them, and if you bought a Dell computer, an inmate may have assembled it. As people became aware of this program, most of the companies pulled out, but not before Dell was forced to settle a class action lawsuit from two employees from Corcoran State Prison who successfully argued in court that Dell forced them to work 20 hours a day in un-sanitary and unsafe conditions.

There is plenty of research out there on this subject, including my thesis paper which is available online. The point is arresting and imprisoning people is profitable for private corporations. As a result, imprisonment is much more about providing that cheap labor source instead of attempting to address any question of crime and punishment or justice. This issue calls into the question the entire process of arrests, who is being arrested, and why. What that means is since there must be a cheap labor source; the question then becomes who will serve that need? Since its unlikely to be rich White kids since they have the resources at their disposal to defend themselves, then it’s likely to be poor people, particularly poor Black and Brown people, who will be arrested and imprisoned since targeting them is the path of least resistance. This is an excellent example of how institutional racism works It also explains why Black people are only 7% of California’s overall population, but 40% of the prison population in that state. The movement towards privatization of prisons simply amplifies these issues.

Justice-seeking people have a responsibility to be 100% opposed to the prison industrial complex. We call on all people in the Portland area to support the Decolonize Portland effort on February 20th to bring attention to this critical issue because for poor people and people of color, prison is the slavery of the 21st century.

Monday, 6:00pm until 8:00pm at Portland Community College campus a film will be shown called Three Thousand Years and Life. It is a documentary about the prison uprising at Walpole State Prison in 1973. Spurred by the terrible conditions at Walpole, the prisoners organized themselves and took it over They ran it themselves for several months, with incredible results. Following the film will be a presentation and discussion on the Prison Industrial Complex.

This event is part of the national Occupy the Prisons day. The film showing is presented by Decolonize PDX, co-sponsored by the PCC Black Student Union. For more info, go to http://pdx.decolonize.org.

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