The Penal-Industrial Complex

A real smart friend of mine, and fellow blogger, wrote an interesting article last month entitled Paranoia Strikes Deep.  In his piece, he touched on a topic that I have interest in, but have lacked the passion (until now) to write on – that being the U.S. Penal system.

From his article:

“A key element in the conspiracy is the America Legislative Exchange Council (aka ALEC). ALEC is a group that purports to bring legislators and businessmen together to craft legislation, usually at the state level. Some of their prouder achievements are “stand your ground” laws and the Arizona and Alabama “show me your papers” statutes. These latter statutes, which included provisions to lock up illegal aliens in detention centers until they could be deported were largely written at the behest of the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison operator in the country. CCA likes “three strikes and you’re out” laws that send people found guilty of three felonies to prison for life.  And, they like mandatory (long) sentences for certain drug offenses. As a general rule they like (and promote) laws that put as many people as possible behind bars (preferably CCA’s bars) for as long as possible.”

Amazingly, in the event you are not aware of it, the U.S. leads the world in warehousing prisoners to the tune of 730 people per 100,000 of the population.  With a population of over 310 million, that means right now we have over 2,250,000 people currently behind bars – the vast majority of them in state penitentiaries.  The cost of storage for that many people works out to $54,312,000,000 that We the People spend to keep these people out of society.  That cost is significantly increased when you factor in new prison construction, prison facility maintenance, as well as the funding of the district attorney’s and court systems.

The cost of our incarceration policy is worth mentioning when we are looking for budget cuts under every rock.  We have in fact created another industrial complex, much like the military industrial complex President Eisenhower warned of when leaving office in 1961:

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”


While dated (current year incarcerations are at 730), this graphic highlights an important shift in our nation’s priority with regard to who goes to jail.  The explosive rise in the number of those sent to prison begins in the late 1970’s continuing through today.  One key factor, beyond the “get tough on crime” sloganeering is the “War on Drugs.”


Regardless of your position on drugs, whether to legalize or not, the fact is and has been that for over the last 4  decades the “War on Drugs” has been a failure.  While that is my sentiment, I’m hardly alone in stating it.  Gov Chris Christie stated virtually the same thing back in July, 2012:

“The war on drugs, while well-intentioned, has been a failure. We’re warehousing addicted people every day in state prisons in New Jersey, giving them no treatment.”

Christie signed a New Jersey law last year that requires non-violent drug offenders be given mandatory drug counseling and treatment en lieu of jail time.

He also argued that it makes economic sense.

“It costs us $49,000 a year to warehouse a prisoner in New Jersey state prisons last year,” Christie said, according to the report. “A full year of inpatient drug treatment costs $24,000 a year.”

It’s time we have a discussion on what role prisons play in America – the failure of the War on Drugs only brings this discussion in to sharp focus.  Are prisons meant to rehabilitate reprobate offenders of the law in order that they can be reintroduced to society with an expectation that they will be productive members of our world or do we simply desire to remove them from society once and for all?

With recidivism rates of approximately 60%, all our prison system seems to do is create better criminals.  Throw a non-violent offender in jail the odds are extremely great that that person will end up back in prison within 3 years – possibly with a violent crime under his belt.

We are placing non-violent drug offenders behind bars in record numbers, with no hope for rehabilitation, in a violent environment that is designed to feed a system of catch, release, and catch again.  It would almost be comical if it were not so insane!

We all, myself included, are disgusted by stories of offenders – in some cases people convicted of manslaughter – that are sent to prison only to receive 3 hots and a cot and possibly a college degree during the time they spend behind bars.  Or the “country club prisons” where the wealthy are sent when actually caught and convicted of crimes.  It offends our sensibility; but it brings the original question back in to play – what is it we want our prisons to accomplish?

If the goal is to punish, beyond just taking away freedom, then we should suspend all thought of parole.  Since we know convicted felons are highly likely to commit additional crimes and go right back to prison, save the rest of society from additional violence – lock them up, throw away the key and be done with it.

However, if the goal is to rehabilitate and release back in to society with the expectation for achieving success in the reintegration, then we need to stop treating prisons as post secondary criminal education – especially for non-violent offenders and drug users.

The other question we need to ask is why?  Who’s interests are we serving locking up millions of non violent offenders?  Are we not simply creating a penal industrial complex by doing so?  Chances are you won’t find a future president delivering an Eisenhower-like speech on the dangers of such a complex going out of control – at least not until several millions more of our citizens are locked up.

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2 Responses to The Penal-Industrial Complex

  1. seanasbury says:

    There is a little bit of irony in that as I was conceptualizing this piece today, I was called to take a whiz quiz for my employer. I told the gentleman collecting my urine that I wouldn’t pee hot for at least another 10 years – when I plan to retire…

  2. David Pan says:

    Watch out! They got your number 🙂

    The “corrections industry” is big business in many areas with depressed economies. It’s sad that we Americans think we are the most free country in the world, when in fact we keep more of our people locked up (by western standards) than any other country. That only countries like China are ahead of us is of little solace.

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