(This is an edited version of an article I wrote in Septemeber of 2011)
To deny prisons in The United States have become their own industry is to deny reality. Every day in this nation multiple television shows are aired depicting life behind bars. Prison has become the norm in our culture, and according to University of Puget Sound professor Stuart Smithers, it is one of our fastest growing industries. Smithers knows his facts. A graduate of Columbia University, he also volunteers at the women’s correctional facility in Purdy, Washington. He teaches a course at the facility called “The Good Life” because for the women imprisoned there, life truly is much better behind the walls that outside of them. However, this cannot be said of all prisons or all conditions for all prisoners. Smithers talked to about thirty people at The University of Puget Sound on Friday September 16, 2011 about the prison industry.
A discussion about prisons must begin with the infamous inmate uprising at the Attica Correctional facility near Buffalo, New York on September 13, 1971. After the uprising at Attica, the Joint Legislative Committee on Crime in New York issued an outcry against plea bargaining. Of the 32,000 inmates imprisoned in Attica, only 4,000 to 5,000 of the cases had been tried in a court of law. Plea bargaining was described in a final report as follows:
The final climactic act in the plea bargaining procedure is a charade which in itself has aspects of dishonesty which rival the original crimes in many instances. The accused is made to assert publicly his guilt on a specific crime, which in many cases he has not committed; in some cases he pleads guilty to a non-existing crime. He must further indicate that he is entering his plea freely…and that he is not doing so because of any promises made to him.
Plea bargaining is an extremely political move made by prosecutors. The accused pleads because it costs the state or county less money in exchange for the promise of a less severe punishment.
In 1971 the prisoners in Attica near Buffalo New York had had enough. The uprising left 39 people dead. Fifty-four percent of the inmates were African-American, one hundred percent of the guards were white. Two thousand rounds of ammunition got fired, The National Guard was called in by Governor Nelson Rockerfeller and eleven of the victims killed were not killed by inmates, but by the bullets of The National Guard. To say prison is a complex mirrors the warning President Eisenhower issued in his farewell speech on January 17, 1961.
Eisenhower was speaking about the military industrial complex, but the same mitigating factors apply to prisons. Eisenhower said, “…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.”
The United States has the highest documented rate of imprisonment in the world. We have the highest number of total prison and jail inmates in the world. We represent five percent of the world population and yet we incarcerate 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. In 1971, President Nixon instigated the War on Drugs and the prison population exploded in 1972 and has continued to explode.
From 1982 to 2000, California’s prison population grew 500 percent. The result was the construction of 23 new prisons. Despite the crime rate being lower in 2011, the incentives to keep people in prison are much higher. The Federal Prison Industries is a stock traded openly on The New York Stock Exchange. Since 1999, the state of Texas has employed prisoners for as little as ten cents an hour to do labor. Since the prisoners have nothing to do and no money to buy sundries and in fact must pay for such things themselves, corporate America has moved in.
Companies such as Microsoft, IBM, Victoria’s Secret, Boeing and Ralph Lauren to name but a few offer prisoners work for almost no money. In 2011, Americans simultaneously cry out against corporate corruption by outsourcing to other nations when in fact we are sourcing out jobs to inmates within our own borders who are denied parole and yet sixty-six percent of all inmates in this nation are imprisoned on non-violent offenses. Social workers and civil rights activists across the country are scrambling to assemble gang prevention programs.
In Tacoma, Washington I see one resident’s face light up when I see him. He knows I am a voice for him and his family. He still has that look of hope in his eyes. He hopes for a better life and a second chance. Meanwhile, some hold standards of zero tolerance. This attitude backfires and ultimately victimizes not only individuals, but families and the entire community. I think we need to ask people who are vested in keeping offenders with minor drug convictions in prison forever. Do the people who make this decision have investments in The Federal Prison Industries?–Alison Whiteman