By Tony Casson
“…they were greedy for money. They accepted bribes and perverted justice.”
1 Samuel 8:3 NLT
“A billion here, a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”
Senator Everett Dirksen
“He will get out with $10, a bus ticket and not much else. The chances are that he will resume his life of crime. And somewhere in Louisiana, a sheriff will smile.” Thus ended an article in the June 16, 2012, issue of the “The Economist” Magazine. It was titled “Sheriff’s Delight.” That declaration was followed by this subheading: “While local officials cash in, convicts lose out.”
Like millions of other Americans, I lived most of my life not giving this nation’s prison system much thought. I assumed that only bad people went to prison and if they were sent there for long periods of time, there must have been a reason for it. I never wasted a moment in consideration of the rationale for the lengths of sentences; how prisoners were treated while they were locked up; what caused them to wind up in prison in the first place; what steps were taken to educate and rehabilitate them; or what became of them after their release.
Times change. People change. Perspectives change. When I foolishly became a part of what I never had given much thought to, everything changed. Sometimes it takes unfortunate circumstances to bring important issues into focus.
So now, from the very bowels of that system I never gave much thought to, I find myself reading this article which is centered on the unique nature of the number of people who have been sentenced to state prisons but are being housed in parish jails run by local sheriffs. (In Louisiana, a county is called a “parish”.)
In the 1970s, faced with federal orders to relieve overcrowding and unwillingness on the part of the citizens of Louisiana to fund more prisons, parish sheriffs were convinced to expand their facilities to accommodate the overflow. They did this willingly, able to demonstrate to those who controlled the parish purse strings that this could prove to be a profitable venture for them. While the public could refuse to fund more prisons, the state government was free to contract with each parish to pay a daily fee to house the prisoners it didn’t have room for. The more prisoners from the state that a parish could house, the more money they could save on their own budgets because while the state paid $24.39 per day per inmate, the parish didn’t spend anywhere near that. The excess was used to ease the parish’s own cash crunch and to expand the sheriff’s departments.
According to “The Economist,” an astonishing 52% of Louisiana’s state prison inmates are being held in facilities designed to hold human beings for no more than one year. Many are held for 10 years and there is limited mobility, almost no outdoor activity and rehabilitation and re-entry programs are almost non-existent.
A similar situation is developing in California where federal judges have ordered state prison census levels to be reduced to eliminate overcrowding. The only available solution is to send the overflow to county jails. Cash-strapped local sheriffs will be only too eager to take them in and receive a daily amount to house each one. This will make the chaining of a human being less about justice, rehabilitation and positive re-integration into society and more about the big dollars local sheriffs will see contributed to their coffers. For example, since the practice began in Louisiana, a small parish in the north of the state, Richland Parish, has had the cash to expand its sheriff’s department from 60 deputies to over 160, with new cars, shotguns, radios and bullet proof gear, according to “The Economist.”
Louisiana is no stranger to making money from the chaining of human beings as its use of slave labor is well-documented. Perhaps less well-known is the fact that Angola State Prison was first known as Angola Plantation, named after the area from which the slaves who worked it came. When forced to accept the fact that slavery was soon to become nothing more than an unpleasant part of this nation’s history, Angola Plantation was converted to Angola State Prison. But always with an eye to profits at the expense of someone else’s misery, a thriving business in “rental convicts” began that resulted in profits for those both being paid for the rentals and those doing the renting. Unfortunately, the abusive treatment, poor quality of food and lack of health care resulted in the deaths of thousands who were easily replaced by an abundant supply of those who had the bad luck to be close at hand.
As our nation entered a period of prison reform, this practice was ended, but prison industries sprang up that were ordered by courts to pay prevailing wages but then were allowed to subtract most of it as reimbursement for the cost of incarceration, leaving the inmate pretty much where he was when he started.
In the mid-1970s, though, an awakening was occurring. The birth of America’s prison/industrial complex began in earnest as individuals and companies looked for ways to profit from the incarceration of more and more of America’s citizens. With the formation of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the declaration of wars on crime and drugs and the birth of the private prison industry, this nation was off and running on its way to incarcerating more individuals over the next 30 years than it had in the previous 200.
But many people have tapped a mother lode that has produced the American Dream for them while others live trapped within the American Nightmare. One example of the fortunes made since conscious efforts to lock up more and more people began lies with a company out of St. Louis, Missouri. Keefe Co. was begun in 1975 selling only two products to local jails: single use packages of Nescafe Instant Coffee and Tang drink mix. Today, Keefe is a multi-billion dollar company carrying over 5,000 national and private label products to supply local, state and federal institution commissaries. They have a huge website touting the services they offer which include computer software and inmate fund handling. Keefe Co. has numerous divisions, all privately owned, that produce and package a host of food items.
Keefe Co. is not alone, but they are definitely one of the larger success stories. Predictably, a huge array of companies and individuals jumped on the backs of those given up for lost in order to cash in and get their share of this huge pie. Bob Barker, of The Price Is Right fame, formed Bob Barker Company (BCC) and obtained contracts to provide institutions with an assortment of cheap clothing, footwear, and toiletry items. Poor quality is what you get when you see Bob’s name on something, but I guess that’s why the price is right.
Pro football Hall of Famer Dan Dierdorf lent his name and likeness to a line of shaving products for institutional use. And school and office supply manufacturer Skilcraft obtained handicapped-hiring contract preference by printing an association with various “Lighthouse for the Blind” groups on their highlighters, markers and bags of pencils sold to institutions such as the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Much has been written about companies that profit from other people’s pain; companies that lobby for longer prison sentences and then make profits off of those receiving those sentences. Joel Dyer wrote “The Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profits From Crime” in 2000. Mr. Dyer paints a very vivid picture of greed, manipulation of the public and exploitation of prison labor.
The companies that profit are numerous and diverse, from Tyson Foods, Kraft and Frito-Lay to Ben E. Keith and Sysco. Banks, toiletry manufacturers, various independent meat packers and food brokers, companies selling air conditioning systems and food preparation equipment – everyone has their fingers in the pie.
Politicians convince a trusting public that this is what it takes to be safe as increasing amounts of taxpayer money is used to fuel the voracious appetite of a hungry monster created and sustained not for the safety of the public but for the greed of unscrupulous businessmen who exhibit the same lack of concern for humanity as those willing to displace 160,000 refuges in order to get cheap land in Africa. (See “The Iowa State Affair.”)
Let there be no mistake – fortunes ride on the backs of this nation’s prison inmates. If you think there is not big money at stake here, consider this: in 1982, the total local, state and federal expenditures for the entire criminal justice system (all police, courts, judges, jails and prisons in the country) was a little under $36 billion dollars. In comparison, those same expenditures in 2006 were over $214 billion dollars. In a different example, let’s look at the total in 2012 of just state and federal prison operations: those costs were over $77 billion dollars. In order to incarcerate American citizens, the United States spent more than France ($61 billion), the United Kingdom ($57 billion), Russia ($53 billion), and Saudi Arabia ($43 billion) spent on their entire national defense budgets in 2010.
Sadly, we have come to expect nothing less from a country that incarcerates more of its citizens than anywhere on the planet.
When it comes to the sound of a cell door slamming behind another incarcerated person in this country, sheriffs are not the only ones smiling.
We’ll look at the opportunities to salvage lives that are lost while people are serving their sentences in the next installment of “America’s Culture of Incarceration.”