While the myth of ‘American exceptionalism’ continues to plague the thoughts of politicians and TV infotainment “news” channels, it behooves us to recall some actual things in which America excels.
Military spending, arms sales, prescription drug use and obesity rates are some of the more notorious ones, but no country comes close to the number of people America puts in prison. With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States holds 20 percent of the world’s prisoners.
The prison population rose 408% from 1978 to 2014, as government ramped up its War on Drugs and instituted mandatory minimum prison sentencing. One in fourteen children in the U.S. has a parent behind bars, and that rate is almost twice as bad for poor children.
Yes, mass incarceration is truly an American phenomenon. It’s a horrid beast borne of the militarized police state and a corporatocracy exploiting human suffering for profit.
Like a shady salesman, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has pitched its routine for years to Congress and the public that prisons bring economic benefits to rural communities. This alleged economic boost is meant to be some sort of justification for expanding mass incarceration.
The BOP stated in its fiscal 2016 budget report:
“By bringing in new federal jobs, stimulation of local businesses and housing, contracting with hospitals and other local vendors, and coordinating with local law enforcement, the BOP improves the economy of the town and the entire region where these rural facilities are located.”
Officials in Letcher County, Kentucky have fallen hook, line and sinker for it. With coal going the way of the dinosaur, they seek salvation in a high-security, 1,200-person federal facility to be built at a cost of $444 million.
However, those supposed economic benefits are a fantasy.
The Letcher Governance Project, which is opposed to the prison for profit system, points out that three new prisons in three nearby counties have done “very little to help local economies,” and those counties remain among the poorest in the country.
This is a microcosm of the general reality across the country. The Marshall Project explains in detail why prisons are not an economic stimulus, and may be doing more harm than good.
A 2010 study looked at the change in employment for every county in the lower 48 states between 1976 and 2004, specifically the performance of those with prisons versus those without. There was no link between prisons and rising employment after 1990. In fact, some counties showed an inverse relationship between prisons and employment growth.
Another study found that “towns with new prisons experienced much lower increases in employment, retail sales, household wages, housing units and home values when compared to towns without prisons.”
An Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed Letcher County prison said that many, if not all, of the 300 jobs will go to “existing Bureau of Prisons employees.” In California, only 20 percent of new prison jobs went to locals; in Missouri, less than a third went to county residents. The skills and union connections necessary to get prison construction jobs usually don’t exist in the local population.
Many of those who do get jobs at the new prisons don’t actually move into town, so they don’t contribute to home ownership or the tax base. Lots of them would rather commute long distances from cities.
Even Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin said, “The quality of life began to go down…and the number of people who really had roots in the community began to change.”
Prisons bring few “linkages to the economy” in the form of other business development that a town is looking for. As authors Tom Meagher & Christie Thompson noted, “Nobody wants to build a new big box store near a prison.”
Adding insult to injury, prisoners are rented out to both government and private employers, providing extremely cheap labor that unfairly competes with local residents looking for work. State agencies gladly herd prisoners into the most mundane tasks such as printing, mapping and phone services.
This is one of the most disturbing aspects of the modern-day prison system, as corporations such as Microsoft, Nintendo, Dell, Chevron, IBM, Victoria’s Secret and Honda have also used prisoners for pennies on the dollar. Local factories and gas stations are some of the beneficiaries in Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate in the country and the worst prisoner exploitation program.
In the face of these realities, how can the federal Bureau of Prisons honestly say that prisons bring economic benefits? Only an agency that owes its existence to mass incarceration and the corporations that benefit in the prison-industrial complex can peddle such lies.
If we continue to make progress fighting to end the immoral war on drugs and continue to tear down the injustice of mandatory minimum sentencing, then demand for new prisons will slow or reverse.
There are far better ways for towns to improve their economy, such as alternative energy production and things that embrace the future instead of perpetuate the police state. Perhaps no greater sign of hope lies in the pioneering examples where former prisons are being turned into cannabis grow facilities.