Ye may have noticed over the New Year a prison riot in England, with prisoners staging an uprising over searches for contraband booze. What wasn’t reported as much was that in the USA a much bigger and more important protest by prisoners – a one day strike, which crossed racial lines as Black and White prisoners refused to work for one day in protest at prison conditions in the USA, with demands for a living wage, decent healthcare, nutritional meals, access to rehabilitation, fair parole hearings and family visits.
The prison industry in the United States is big business as outlined here – “prison workers provide ninety eight percent of the total market for equipment assembly services. They produce ninety three percent of paints and paintbrushes, ninety two percent of stove assemblies, forty six percent of body armor, thirty six percent of all home appliances, thirty percent of all microphones, headphones, and speakers, and they even manufacture twenty one percent of all office furniture”.
Prisoners don’t only make commercial goods, they’re also an important part of the US Military Industrial Complex – they produce “100% of all helmets ammunition belts, bullet proof vests, Identification tags, shirts, pants tents, bags and even canteens are produced by prison labour”. This means that by jailing a large whack of it’s own population the United States can afford to keep supplying it’s massively overstretched military maintain bases around the world and invade other countries.
This massive industry has been used by the largest corporations in the USA to undercut workers rights and make a killing -
* A Washington company “hired” prisoners to wrap software for Microsoft.
Golden arches, golden shackles? Oregon inmates produce electronic menu boards for McDonalds.
* In New Mexico, inmates take hotel reservations by telephone. California convicts took TWA airline reservations over the phone — during a flight attendants’ strike.
* Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest of the nation’s 88 private prison operators, teamed up with Company Apparel Safety Items in the first partnership between a private prison and a private manufacturer.
* Next time you’re turning the lights down and getting all comfy, consider this: Prisoners in South Carolina made lingerie for Victoria’s Secret.
Using prisoners as virtual slave labour has meant that for once, the practice of American jobs being outsourced to the Third World has reversed, for example an assembly factory in Mexico and sweatshop in Indonesia were closed down with their trade brought back to the USA – because even prisoners can be paid less than workers in the developing world, as little as 25c an hour.
Not only can companies in the USA get prisoners to make all their crap on the cheap, they can actually run prisons themselves. Since the 1980′s the private prison industry in the USA has boomed (more on this later).
As the US prison population skyrocketed, the ruling class in the United States did what it always does, and pointed to the free market for a solution to it’s jailing of millions of it’s own citizens; It let private prisons ease the burden on the Federal Government. The problem is that even the US Bureau of Justice says the efficiency savings private prisons were meant to make ““have simply not materialized.” What happened was that a spate of violent prisoners escaped because privatised prisons cut corners for profit – just like Railtrack in the UK, privatisation of what should be a not for profit social service resulted in a disastrous risk to people’s safety.
This graph makes sense when you realise the War on Drugs kicked off in 1980.
The reason the prison industrial complex has grown to become such a massive part of the US economy is simple – the prison population in the United States has quadrupled in the past 20 years. The USA imprisons more people than any other country in the world at any time in human history. With only 5% of the world’s population, the USA has almost 25% of the world’s prison population. A whopping 2,500, 000 Americans are behind bars.
Despite this massive increase in prisoners, reports of crime have actually decreased in the same 20 years. The right-wing in the USA claims the two are related – more people in jail, less violent offenders on the streets. But the overwhelming majority of prisoners in the USA are held for non-violent crimes.
The massive increase in jailed Americans is due to the beginning of the “War on Drugs” in the 1980′s. Just like the prohibition of alcohol in the 20′s, politicians in the US used the massive crack cocaine epidemic that hit the states as an excuse to jail hundreds of thousands of people, so they could pose as being tough and win votes for fighting a “war” (this was during the Cold War where fighting an actual war abroad to win elections was frowned upon by the Soviet Union).
The majority of people arrested were not drug dealers though – they were actually drug users. The penalty for drug use in the USA makes the UK look like Bob Ainsworth’s psychedelic drug paradise – you can get 5 years without any chance of parole for possessing 3.5 ounces of smack/5 grams of crack.
This means those jailed for drug offences are predominantly poor and Black. As well as looking back to the war on alcohol, the “War on Drugs” helped reintroduce another American tradition; making lots of Black men slaves – almost 40% of the US prison population is made up of Black males, despite them only making up 12% of the population.
While black males were jailed en masse, many of the people who were actually responsible for letting crack into the United States were protected because crack cocaine helped to fund anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua. The CIA actively assisted the distribution of crack cocaine in the USA so they could illegally arm these rebels, and unlike their victims, none of them have ever done any jail time for it.
At least one polis gets it.
The war on drugs itself was biased against Black males, with people who smoked crack (the cheap form of cocaine taken by poor folk, a lot of whom were also Black) being treated much more harshly by the Justice system than cocaine in it’s pure form (the kind of cocaine taken by people in the Justice system). For example you’d need to get found wi 500 grams of pure cocaine to get the same punishment (5 years) as someone wi 5 grams of crack. Cocaine is a hell of a drug (for jailing lots of folk).
The War on Drugs, and the massive increase in prison population and jailing of Black males means there are more Black men in jail than in college than the USA. SSY is still waiting for Mr-Change-You-Can-Believe-In to rectify this situation but we won’t hold our breath. As Stephen Fry outlines below, keeping lots of young black guys in jail makes a few white guys in Washington a lot of money.
Well done American ruling class, I see what you’ve done there.
There are some cases where encouraging folk to work in prison is something Socialists should support – it keeps them active, it can help rehabilitate them, teach them new skills and prepare them for life outside. But the fact is right now, rehabilitation in the United States isn’t just frowned upon as being too liberal, it’d be a hammer blow to large parts of the economy. Societies are ordered by what makes money for the people in charge of it, and there’s no motivation to stopping the Justice system from jailing millions of folk in the USA – the opposite in fact.
People on the conservative right in the USA often attack Socialists for all the dodgy stuff that happened in the Soviet Union – one of which was the Gulag, a massive Prison Industrial Complex which used to exist in Russia. Aside from the fact we don’t actually support that, the Gulag system in the Soviet Union was a massive white elephant which lost the Soviets millions of roubles as prisoners dug meaningless canals to nowhere. These projects were quickly scrapped by the Soviet leadership after Stalin kicked the bucket.
In contrast, the US Prison Industrial Complex is very, very profitable for the people who can get a cut out of it. The War on Drugs may have failed to stop drug use in the USA but it has been a roaring success for the shareholders of hundreds of companies, private prisons and military suppliers who have jailed drug addicts to use as slaves.
People who commit the worst, most violent crimes of murder, assault, rape etc shouldn’t be anywhere else but behind bars but those Americans who get addicted to drugs should get help from their Government to go clean, instead of working for years in the 21st century equivalent of cotton picking.