Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The coming Prison Industrial Complex

For those still baffled by the Harper government's insistence on spending untold billions on new prisons with no big increase in crime to justify them, there are specific policy and political goals this pledge satisfies.

In the US the Prison Industrial Complex serves the very specific constituencies and interests of the Republican Party and its regional supporters. The phantom crime wave explanation by the Harperites is purely a cover for a massive subsidy to rural and exurban constituencies.  One could almost applaud the Conservative embrace of a massive Kensyian public works program if it was only butter instead of bars.
Three decades after the war on crime began, the United States has developed a prison-industrial complex -- a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need. The prison-industrial complex is not a conspiracy, guiding the nation's criminal-justice policy behind closed doors. It is a confluence of special interests that has given prison construction in the United States a seemingly unstoppable momentum. It is composed of politicians, both liberal and conservative, who have used the fear of crime to gain votes; impoverished rural areas where prisons have become a cornerstone of economic development; private companies that regard the roughly $35 billion spent each year on corrections not as a burden on American taxpayers but as a lucrative market; and government officials whose fiefdoms have expanded along with the inmate population. Since 1991 the rate of violent crime in the United States has fallen by about 20 percent, while the number of people in prison or jail has risen by 50 percent. The prison boom has its own inexorable logic. Steven R. Donziger, a young attorney who headed the National Criminal Justice Commission in 1996, explains the thinking: "If crime is going up, then we need to build more prisons; and if crime is going down, it's because we built more prisons -- and building even more prisons will therefore drive crime down even lower."

Of course justifying such a massive spending increase in cells requires an equally massive increase in incarceration - a 'tough on crime' agenda and large scale contraction of the social safety net to help pay for dungeon construction should start ramping up those numbers nicely.

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