Prison-industrial system

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Apr 22 08:01:52 MDT 2001

NY Times Book Review, April 22, 2001

Everybody Wants One

All over America, the author finds, new prisons are the answer to local
economic revival.

First Chapter: 'Going Up the River:


Just before the start of the year 2000, the number of people in American
jails and prisons surpassed two million for the first time. This was up
from 1.5 million in 1995 and 500,000 in 1980. Every week, the nation's
prison population swells by about 1,000 -- enough to fill two new prisons.
This growth has occurred even as the crime rate has fallen, by about 16
percent since 1995.

Criminologists have advanced a number of reasons to explain this seeming
contradiction. The tougher sentences passed over the last 15 years have
meant longer terms of confinement. The cutback or outright elimination of
parole in many states has sharply reduced the number of early releases. The
war on drugs has served up a steady stream of bodies to the criminal
justice system. Some experts maintain that there is no discrepancy between
rising prison populations and falling crime rates -- that the former has
helped bring about the latter.

In ''Going Up the River,'' Joseph T. Hallinan offers a novel, and
disturbing, explanation for the relentless rise in the prison population. A
reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Hallinan spent four years visiting
prisons -- traveling from one to another, he writes, ''the way some might
travel Civil War battlefields, ticking off the famous sites.'' He visited
the Limestone Correctional Center in Capshaw, Ala., where inmates wearing
iron shackles around their ankles spend their days smashing boulders with
sledgehammers. He visited the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester,
where 10,000 spectators at a prison rodeo roared as bronco-riding inmates
were thrown to the ground, knocked unconscious and trampled. He spent much
of his time in Texas, which, since 1991, has undertaken the most extensive
prison-building program in United States history. At its peak, in 1995
(when George W. Bush was governor), the state was opening one new prison
nearly every week.

Hallinan also traveled back in time, in a sense, to some early landmark
prisons, like the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Opened in
1829, Eastern State was created by Quakers. Abhorring corporal punishment,
they believed in not merely confining inmates but in reforming them. To
that end, they stressed work and solitude. Inmates were made to serve their
entire sentence inside their cells, working alone, eating alone, praying
alone. This, the Quakers believed, would lead to penitence -- hence the
name, ''penitentiary.'' Penologists of the day proclaimed the prison an
extraordinarily humane institution, but Charles Dickens, visiting while on
a tour of the United States, found it barbaric. ''Over the head and face of
every prisoner who comes into this melancholy house,'' he wrote, ''a black
hood is drawn; and in this dark shroud, an emblem of the curtain dropped
between him and the living world, he is led to the cell from which he never
again comes forth, until his whole term of imprisonment has expired.''

Such cruelties seem to belong to some bygone era, but, as Hallinan
discovered, the conditions in today's prisons are no less severe. In
language that is simple and unadorned, he describes scenes that are graphic
and unsettling. At the Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, Calif.,
for instance -- one of a new generation of ultramodern, ultraexpensive
''supermaxes'' -- the conditions ''press the outer bounds of what most
humans can psychologically tolerate,'' as one judge put it. About 1,500 of
the 3,800 inmates live in a special Security Housing Unit, or SHU. (Among
them is Charles Manson.) Inmates are kept inside their tiny cells 22 1/2
hours a day. Most have cellmates, but one-third are kept alone. And their
stays can last for years. . .

Each prison Hallinan visits seems to feature its own form of depravity. At
the state prison in Corcoran, Calif., rival gang members were pitted
against each other in ''human cockfights'' while guards placed bets. In
Alabama, a state on the cutting edge of penal punishment, inmates caught
masturbating are required to wear special flamingo-pink uniforms. At the Ad
Seg section of the McConnell Unit in Beeville, Tex., up to a dozen assaults
occur every day, and guards wear safety glasses to protect them from the
feces, urine and food that are regularly hurled at them.

Despite such conditions, Hallinan found, people were eager to work in these
institutions. For the jobs are considered very desirable. At the McConnell
Unit, for instance, a corrections officer after 18 months earns $24,324 a
year -- nearly three times the county's per capita income of $8,600. The
prison was also valued for the boost it gave the local economy. Since the
opening of McConnell and a second unit, Beeville had gotten ''a new Taco
Bell, a new movie theater and three State Farm agents where before there
had been only one.'' Interestingly, back in the 1960's, most communities in
Texas had opposed all efforts to build prisons in their backyards. But in
the mid-1980's the state's oil industry collapsed, and by 1990 prisons had
come to be seen as ''engines of economic salvation.''

Full review:

Louis Proyect
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