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.