Prison Economy

In the comments of my last post about the epic saga of the empty jail in Hardin, Montana, Jason Osgood asks:

Is anyone else disturbed that a new jail was someone’s idea of economic development and jobs creation?

Yeah, me too. And while there was a lot in that story to gawk at, that was certainly a big one. Why the hell did a small town in Montana with no immediate need to house prisoners build a huge jail? TPM’s Justin Elliott looked into it:

But an investigation by TPMmuckraker into how Hardin ended up with the 92,000 square foot facility in the first place suggests that, long before “low-level card shark” Michael Hilton ever came to town, Hardin officials had already been taken for a ride by a far more powerful set of players: a well-organized consortium of private companies headquartered around the country, which specializes in pitching speculative and risky prison projects to local governments desperate for jobs.

Elliott shines a welcome light on the way private prisons make their money. Private corrections firms aren’t talked about much as one of the industries that have tremendous power in this country, but they should be. As America has become the world’s most prolific jailer, this is an industry that has been driving it and profiting from it.

One of the biggest misconceptions I hear when it comes to drug laws is that we can’t change them because of public opinion. This tends to be widely accepted as fact wherever you go, but it really isn’t true. Ron Paul continues to get re-elected in a conservative part of Texas every two years even though he has advocated for legalizing marijuana since the 1980s. The reality is that most people don’t pay much attention at all the drug war, and those who do overwhelmingly want it to end. Things like needle exchanges create mini-uproars from a small fringe of drug warriors, but after they’re enacted, they work exactly as expected to reduce the spread of diseases and no politician ever loses their job over them. Aside from small attempts to minimize the damage of drug prohibition, though, we still remain completely unable to shift away from one core aspect of the drug war – the idea that putting large numbers of people in prison will fix the problem.

This isn’t just a national mental block on the part of voters. We’re nearing a national majority of people being in favor of having marijuana sold legally to adults. In survey after survey, people tend to understand that putting people in jail for drug crimes doesn’t work. Instead, it’s the private corrections industry (and other special interests) that have a very strong interest in continuing the status quo. Prison overcrowding is their life-blood. The more people we arrest, the more prisons have to be built, and the more the American taxpayers can be soaked to house them all. This desire dovetails perfectly with the interests of law enforcement unions and prosecutors as well.

But in one way or another, all this insanity comes out of our pockets. Putting people in prison isn’t an investment. It produces nothing of value. In fact, it compounds taxpayer expenses in a number of ways, from the costs of trying to re-integrate former prisoners back into society to the downstream effects of having large numbers of single parent (or no parent) households in low-income communities. Putting people in prison should be seen as a necessary evil in society, an unavoidable side-effect of human nature that’s required to provide justice for the victims of crime. It shouldn’t be seen as an opportunity for government to invest in job creation. I believe that governments at all levels can and should provide stimulus for communities with high unemployment. But building a new prison that relies solely on the premise that we don’t have enough people locked up in our society already is the most counterproductive way of doing it.


  1. 2

    Chris Stefan spews:

    I’ve actually been surprised even on forums where conservative voices tend to dominate the support for alternative sentencing for non violent drug offenders. There even tends to be a large subset in favor of legalizing at least marijuana and taxing it.

  2. 3

    ArtFart spews:

    Naturally, with imprisonment having been made a growth industry in which private enterprise makes a healthy chunck ‘o’ change, any efforts at reform will likely be stymied by those who’ve been reaping the profits lining the pockets of politicians to gain their continuing support for this absurdity….just like what Big Pharma and the private insurance industry are doing with health care.

    Numerous observers have postulated for years that even public servants involved in drug and vice policing end up getting corrupted by their work, and end up having no desire to actually win the “wars” they’re fighting, since to do so would consign them to having to make a living doing something far more mundane. That has to go at least quadruple for private “entrepreneurs”.

  3. 4


    Sorry that Lee deleted the post.

    I suggested conflating this issue with MJ legalization is a mistake. My example, intended to be humorous, may have set him off.

    My main point was that our focus on prison as punishment or as therapy is not sensible.

    Here are some examples:

    1. Why do I need to pay for a wealthy prisoner? Wouldn’t it make more sense to fine Martha and Rostinkowski or send Millikan a bill? Shouldn’t impoverishment be made a legal choice?

    2. Is prison actually a punishment for anyone? I suspect that a lot of recidivists see prison as a sort of sabbatical. If you are poor and socially defective, prison life may not to be such a bad deal. The USSR and other societies have used exile to undesireable places as an alternative to prison. Could we do something like this?

    3. Don’t we have ample needs where convict service core could contribute to society rather than cost money?

    4. Victimless crimes become victim crimes when we use prisons. Given the extensive tools available through the internet, couldn’t we restrict people’s privacy (eg mandatory GPS tracking) or use other tools rather than prison?

    How many folks would frequent a prostitute wearing a GPS collar? Shy not sentence a drug user (assuming we even wnat such sentences) to monthly blood tests?

  4. 5

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    As I predicted yesterday, media interest in a 2004 Texas execution is heating up after GOP Party Gov. Rick Perry launched a smear campaign against the dead man and fired members of a state commission investigating the case.

    Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for setting a house fire that killed his 3 young children in 1991. Experts now say the fire was an accident, not arson, and that the criminal investigation that led to his conviction and execution was incompetent and badly botched.

    Willingham’s life could have been saved. A report questioning the original arson investigator’s conclusions was put on his desk 1 1/2 hours before the execution was carried out. But Perry either didn’t read it or ignored it. As governor, he could have stayed the execution for 30 days to allow further review.

    CNN reports this morning that one of the jurors in the case is now expressing serious doubts about the verdict. Because criminal defendants must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, such doubts at time of trial are supposed to result in a “not guilty” verdict.

    But worse, the juror says she should have been excluded from the jury because her family was close friends with the local fire marshal, who was a key witness against Willingham in the trial, pointing to a grievous error by Willingham’s defense counsel. This kind of close relationship with a prosecution should routinely lead to a juror challenge during jury selection.

    A disturbing aspect of how the prosecutor handled the case is that Willingham was offered a life sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, and pursued a death sentence only because Willingham insisted he was innocent. The moral wrongness of threatening a defendant with death for maintaining his innocence is obvious — especially if it turns out after he’s executed that he was, in fact, innocent as now appears likely in Willingham’s case.

    Death penalty opponents have long used as one of their principal arguments against executions that someday an innocent person might be executed. After an accused person has been put to death, they say, a mistaken conviction can never be rectified. This argument has gained force in recent years as DNA testing has resulted in exoneration of dozens of death row inmates across the country. Those cases emphasize how unreliable the justice process is, despite all the rights afforded to defendants and all the precautions taken in death penalty cases, such as automatic appellate review of death sentences.

    Arguments in favor of the death penalty have been substantially weakened by the fact it costs taxpayers far more to execute someone than to incarcerate them for life, and by a growing body of evidence that executions have no deterrent effect. This leaves little rationale for the death penalty beyond a visceral desire for revenge.

    I personally favor limited use of the death penalty in exceptionally heinous cases where guilt is not in doubt. For example, I think it should be used against the Carr brothers, perpetrators of the so-called “Wichita Horror,” a notorious black-against-white hate crime that has become something of a cause celebre among rightwing racists. Here in Washington, you’ll find plenty of people who think it’s a travesty that Gary Ridgway didn’t get death. And you won’t get argument from me about whether Charles Rodman Campbell deserved to stretch a rope.

    But the Willingham case is qualitatively different. There, you don’t have tangible evidence of guilt. In that case, the issue was whether a crime was even committed at all, and the prosecution’s case rested on the opinions of fire investigators whose methodology was about as sophisticated as “water witching” with a stick and has been compared to the practice of voodoo. In other words, Willingham was convicted and executed on less, even, than circumstantial evidence; he was killed based on opinion testimony alone, and GOP Party Gov. Perry allowed the execution to proceed despite a report sitting on his desk saying the opinion testimony was hokum.

    Now, we are all witnesses to the disturbing spectacle of a GOP Party politician trying to obstruct an official state investigation into whether an innocent man was executed by mistake in order to cover his own ass and shore up political support for the death penalty. Yesterday, GOP Party Gov. Perry called Willingham a “monster” and dismissed the serious questions that have been raised about his conviction as “anti-death penalty propaganda.” I think that, in conjunction with his efforts to manipulate the inquiry by replacing commissioners with people personally loyal to him — which even GOP Party Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison called “ham-handed” — warrants the Texas Legislature opening an impeachment investigation against Perry.

    Perry, 58, likely has big political ambitions. Elevated to the Texas governorship by George W. Bush’s accession to the presidency in 2000, he has actively sought the national limelight by chairing the Republican Governors Conference and criticizing President Obama’s policies. In short, he acts and sounds like a guy who wants to follow his predecessor into the White House. But, as the Willingham case illustrates, this guy isn’t morally fit to run a dog kennel.

    As well, GOP Party Gov. Perry’s attempt to manipulate the findings of the Texas Forensic Commission in the Willingham case will, as I said yesterday, only heighten media interest in the case. Reminiscent of Nixon’s infamous “Saturday Night Massacre,” it reminds me of the political axiom that “the coverup is always more damaging than the original scandal.” Which suggests that GOP Party Gov. Perry is not only an immoral little worm, he’s just plain too stupid to be governor, let alone president.

  5. 6

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @3 The ultimate manifestation of the corrupting influence of private business when government functions like running jails are “privatized” is that Pennsylvania case where the prison contractor paid millions of dollars in kickbacks to crooked juvenile court judges in exchange for sending thousands of kids to jail for trivial violations. What was, at its heart, a scheme by the private prison operator to defraud taxpayers ended up causing incalculable damage to young lives.

    Privatizing government functions has been a keystone pillar of the right’s crusade against alleged government “waste, fraud, and abuse.” In fact, it’s nothing but a cynical scheme to create easy-money opportunities for quick-buck private operators. Like all the other hot air balloons floated by the right, it’s a hoax designed to rope in gullible voters. In fact, there is no more waste, fraud, or abuse in government than in private enterprise, and probably a good deal less if the rampant corruption in Iraq contracting is any indication. There, things are so bad that American soldiers are being electrocuted by showers built by corrupt and incompetent private contractors who were paid stunning amounts of taxpayer money under secret no-bid contractors designed to reward the GOP Party’s cronies and financial supporters.

    Privatization is even worse than inefficient and costly; the GOP Party has turned it into corruption with a capital “C”.

  6. 7

    Chris Stefan spews:

    Hutchison is no fool either she’ll beat governor goodhair over the head with this every chance she gets.

    As a Socalist/Green type Liberal I’m actually hoping Sen. Hutchison doesn’t win the primary so there is at least a chance a Democrat will win, even if they are likely to be a blue dog. Though I will admit Sen. Hutchison would be a huge improvement on the last two governors of Texas.

  7. 8

    rhp6033 spews:

    The Newsweek article on the Montana prison debacle points out that cash-strapped states are trying to find ways to reduce prison populations, thereby causing the “crash” in the market for private prisons. This part of Montana is desperate for any kind of economic boost, making it vulnerable to the sales gimmics of the wall street investors who wanted to make a bundle out of this prison.

  8. 9

    rhp6033 spews:

    But the question of what to do with convicted felons has long been the bottleneck in the justice system in the U.S. After the 1960’s experiments in “rehabilitation” failed, prisons have mostly turned into warehouses for young men. The hope is that by the time they get out of prison they will have, due to their age, lost their desire for violence and crime, and also lost their criminal street contacts which might have contributed to the conduct which put them in prison.

    I spoke with a judge once who said that he believed that the value of imprisoning an inmate ended the minute the cell doors clanged shut behind him. The initial shock of being in prison is the worst punishment we can foster upon them, he argued, and once that shock wears off future confinement doesn’t help.

    Personally, I’m not convinced that long prison sentences help anybody, and our system of giving offenders multiple chances before they actually go to prison might actually be hurting, rather than helping – it fosters the idea that if they can skate just close enough to the line, they won’t get any serious punishment.

    Perhaps a better answer is for young offenders to get a relatively short but intense prison stay, decidedly uncomfortable to the point of being the equivilent of a WWII era boot camp. This might actually act as a deterrent.

    Note that this is completely different from the idea of how to treat drug offenders, which is a different consideration entirely. The number of times where a prison sentence helped overcome a drug habit are few and far between (David Crosby being a notable exception).

  9. 10

    rhp6033 spews:

    RR @ 5: The “Innocense Project”, and other groups which are using DNA testing to attack the convictions of many inmates, is making Texas look pretty bad. On overwhelming number of wrongful convictions seem to be coming out of Texas, resulting in multiple releases and lawsuits against the state.

    The result has been a knee-jerk reaction to defend every Texas conviction, not matter how shaky the original conviction is proven to be. I think that’s part of the reason why the governor is being so determined in this case – he’s not only thinking about this execution, but also about the thousands of other cases currently under review.

  10. 11

    SJ Troll Patrol spews:

    @9 rhp

    I like yur post.

    It seems to me there are many alternatives to prison, esp. if we put revenge aside and focus on prevention and rehab. To summarize

    1. Work Camps
    … these can include your idea of Boot Camp. There are a lot of unpleasant jobs noone wants to do, esp for prison wages.

    2. Impoverishment.
    Millikan and Stewart both returned to society after recreational imprisonments with HUGE assets. Why not punish finacial crime with a progressive fine that reflects the perp’s wealth?
    3. Losses of Liberties Being forced to submit to drug tests, wearing a GPS device, loss of drivers license, banishment from certain places, .. the list is long and depending on the crime may serve as both a deterrent and a punishment.
    4.Physical Punishment Why do we accept imprisonment but eschew caning, the stocks, water boarding, etc as cruel and unusual?

  11. 12

    proud leftist spews:

    There is a sick “Field of Dreams” aspect to this practice of building spec prisons–“if you build it, they will come.” “If you build it, we will fill it,” could be the response of the criminal justice system.

  12. 13

    SJ Troll Patrol spews:

    @12 ,,,

    Like others here I see this as “sick,” but I wonder if I am being objective. Is investment in the prison industry that different from investment in defense industries or military bases? For that matter, how are prisons different form nuclear waste management or purring tunnels through downtown Seattle?

    Is this a moral issue or more NIMBY?

  13. 14

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @7 What I don’t understand is why Kay Bailey Hutchison would give up a U.S. Senate seat to become governor of Texas. I mean, Texas???

    On the other hand, maybe she wants to be governor of Texas for the same reason Rick Perry does. Maybe she, like Perry, has Texas-sized ambitions and doesn’t believe she can reach the White House from the Senate. (Until Obama came along, almost no one did; most of our presidents were governors.) Maybe she and Perry both figure that if a monkey like Perry’s predecessor could do it, then so can they. They must not have a very high opinion of American voters, many of whom have had their fill of Texas politicians by now.

  14. 16

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @13 “Is this a moral issue or more NIMBY?”

    Imagine what a prison next door does to property values and you have the answer.

  15. 17

    proud leftist spews:

    With the exception of the tunnel project, you have a good point. (At least the tunnel project serves a purpose that provides a net good, even if other alternatives might do so as well.) With all these “industries,” there is the unhealthy risk that supply will create a perverted demand–excess prison beds demand prisoners, excess military equipment demands a war so that no one can complain about not using the equipment, etc.

  16. 18

    SJ Troll Patrol spews:

    @17 My point about the tunnel (as opposed to the surface option)is that the main beneficiary of I99/Tunel is the folks outside of Seattle who want another way of getting form N to S.

    Same for a prison. Locating the prison in Walla Walla was a trade off. Certainly the folks there would prefer to have located, e.g. the State Capitol. Howevr, as logn as the prison is there, I would bet that there is a lot of support from the locals for investment in THEIR local industry.

    I think the challenge of industrial lobbying by a prison industry is worrisome. The idea of a prisons lobby pushing for more aggressive use of jailing is scary enough to remind me of the healthcare debate.

  17. 19

    ArtFart spews:

    @14 Or…Senator Hutchison feels a true sense of regard for and duty to her state and its people, has reached the conclusion that they’d be better off without Rick Perry as their governor, and believes (perhaps rightly so) that she stands the best chance of defeating the sumbitch.

  18. 20

    SJ Troll Patrol spews:

    Prisons vs. Schools

    The idea that building private prisons might foster a lobbying effort for prisons is scary but it raises an interesting thought question ….

    Would private schools stimulate educational finding? One way we could get objective data on this is to look at countries where a large part of the “public” system is actually in the hands of private schools .. isn’t this true in Australia?

    Does the education industry there lobby for Au$?

  19. 21

    SJ Troll Patrol spews:

    @19 AF

    I wonder, could Sen Hutchinson be the rarest of finds for a political ornithologist .. the Responsible Republican?

    We used to have a lot of those birds.. in WASTATE the subspecies were called “Evans’ Republicans.”

    BTW, one thing I have not seen mentioned in her regard is that the Texas job is largely ceremonial. TX has a weak governor system so as Guv she would be in an interesting position to build a national campaign while having the luxury of not having to feed worms to the public that feeds on senatorial positions.

  20. 22

    Chris Stefan spews:

    I think Sen. Hutchison may indeed be that rare bird. While she is an arch conservative she seems to actually believe in good government within those limits.

    Of course the simple fact that she isn’t crazy and tends to be rational and practical makes her a moderate by the current standards of the GOP.

    Sen. Snowe and Sen. Collins would also be similar rare birds.

  21. 23


    Rhp, I haven’t had any time to hang out in the HA comment threads recently, which is a shame, because you always have valuable things to add.


  22. 24

    Pancho spews:

    Kay Bailey Hutchinson?


    The Hardin, Montana prison scam was put together by Texans: Architect/rainmaker James Parkey and bond salesman Michael Harling. They screwed the town’s credit (and duped Wall Street investors) for $27 million to build a jail that should have cost perhaps half that much, was illegal and for which there were no available prisoners.

    Sample politcal contributions:
    Michael Harling, 11/01/06: $500 to KBH.
    Michael & Lynn Harling 9/20/07: $4,600 to KBH.
    James Parkey 3/10/08: $1,500 to KBH

    The Hardin one-two was an old sting, honed to a fine edge by Parkey and Harling, but originally from brothers Patrick and Micheal Graham in Texas.

    (Texas Monthly May 1996: The Great Texas Prison Mess) – Texas was dying for prison beds. In 1987 (Patrick) Graham pronounced himself a jail builder, formed N-Group Securities with Mike, and spent the next three years trying to persuade counties to let him build their jails on spec financed with revenue bonds. The revenues that would pay off the bonds would come from contracts with TDCJ and other entities to house overflow prisoners. And Graham gathered an impressive collection of business associates: ex-governor Mark White, former state senator Ray Hutchison (the spouse of eventual U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison), the highbrow private prison company Wackenhut, and a host of county officials who were assured by Graham that a Texas jail would never want for inmates—that if you built one, TDCJ would come.

    The Grahams’scam failed, because there were no available prisoners.