The Guardian November 15, 2000

Prisons, profits and Governor George W Bush

by Tim Wheeler
Editor, People's Weekly World
Longhorn cows. Oil. They've made a few Texans rich and famous. But under Governor George W Bush another industry is pumping out cash like an East Texas gusher private prisons! George and Richard Wackenhut, owners of Wackenhut Corporation, operate 13 prisons in the Lone Star State. They are so enthusiastic about fellow Republican George "Dubya" Bush and his race for the presidency that they have contributed considerable sums to his election campaigns. Bush's ties to the prison-industrial complex raise troubling questions about his posturing as a "compassionate conservative". It sheds light on his "lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key" policy on the incarceration of drug users even though Bush does not deny reports that he snorted cocaine in his youth. It also reveals much about his hard-line support for the death penalty which he has imposed 137 times since taking office, more than any other governor. Bush sent Shaka Sankofa (Gary Graham) to his death despite widespread doubt about his guilt. He also executed Karla Faye Tucker, the first women in 100 years executed in Texas, despite worldwide calls for clemency. The death penalty is a centerpiece of the GOP's [Republicans'] policy of criminalising youth and people of colour. That policy has resulted in the incarceration of 1.8 million people in US prisons, rivalling the number of youth attending college. At least US$35 billion is spent each year on prison incarceration and the "privatisers" of the GOP see this industry as a lush pasture for super- profits. More than 146,000 inmates are incarcerated in the Texas prison system, according to the Sentencing Project. Almost another 58,000 are languishing in local jails, for a grand total of 204,000 prison inmates. Of these, over 63,000 or 45.3 per cent, are Black and almost 37,000 or 26.2 per cent, are Hispanic. Texas has the nation's second highest rate of incarceration after Louisiana. Prison industry Back in 1994, Texas Comptroller John Sharp released a 384-page report on the Texas prison system that sounded like President Eisenhower's farewell warning against the "military industrial complex". In a message to then-Governor Ann Richards, Sharp warned that the Texas prison system's two-year budget was US$4 billion, more than six per cent of the state budget. "Prison operating costs, not including their original construction or debt service cost, have ballooned by some 2,000 per cent in the past decade and will rise by another two-thirds by the turn of the century", he wrote. At the time he was writing, another 76,000 prison beds were to be added to the system, bringing total capacity to 145,000 inmates. But at the rate new inmates were being added, the state would need 206,000 prison beds, he wrote. (His projection was nearly on the mark.) Sharp further warned of a "prison industrial complex" in Texas that will fight attempts to reduce costs. "Corrections has spawned its own self-perpetuating interest groups with consultants, lobbyists, burgeoning state bureaucracies and a rising private corrections industry. Like any special interest group, the correctional industry is in business to keep its empire growing." Slave labour Again, this warning has come true with a vengeance under Governor Bush. Just listen to Senator Phil Gramm (R-Texas), a close crony of Bush. He has proposed turning prisons into industrial parks. "I want them to make prisoners work 10 hours a day, six days a week. I want to enter into contracts with major manufacturers so that we can produce component parts in prisons ... now being produced in places like Mexico, China, Taiwan and Korea. We can defray about half the cost of keeping people in prison." The savings, $22,000 annually per prisoner, could be used to build more prisons and train more prison guards, Gramm said. He also proposed doubling the number of graduates of the FBI Academy to oversee this prison boom. Rep Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, is the sponsor of legislation in the House to speed conversion to private prisons. McCollum spearheaded the impeachment of President Clinton. "Certainly Sen Gramm supports that legislation", said Jenny Gainsborough a researcher at the Sentencing Project. It may sound farfetched, but Bush is actively implementing the plan in Texas. Wackenhut, based in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, where it enjoys close, mutually profitable ties to Governor Jeb Bush and McCollum has generated hefty profits and lots of nasty headlines. On December 16, 1999 the Texas Department of Corrections was forced to take over the Travis County Community Justice Center, operated by Wackenhut, when several women inmates filed a lawsuit charging that guards had beaten and raped them. The 11 Wackenhut thugs are now awaiting trial. Wackenhut's answer was that they would end the practice of male guards overseeing female inmates. The state of Louisiana was forced to take over the Wackenhut-operated Jena Juvenile Justice facility this spring when inspectors found that guards routinely beat and abused the youthful inmates. A judge denounced conditions as "intolerable" with inmates denied adequate food, clothing and health care. Many of the youths were barefooted. More than 130 African, Latin American, and Asian inmates at a Wackenhut operated Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detention center in New York City went on a hunger strike last fall to protest their prolonged incarceration and the denial of their appeals for asylum despite clear proof that they faced death if sent back to Uganda, Nigeria, Colombia and other countries. The hunger strikers accused the Wackenhut guards of physical and verbal abuse. Non-union Meanwhile, back in Texas, Wackenhut is prospering. About 25 miles south of Austin, in the town of Lockhart, Wackenhut took over a prison and invited corporations to set up a factory to employ inmates. Leonard Hill, owner of a company in Austin that assembled circuit boards, closed his factory terminating 150 workers and moved his plant to the Wackenhut prison. Texas taxpayers paid for the construction of a new factory built to Hill's specifications for which he pays $1 per year in rent. Hill's company, now called Lockhart Technologies Inc, employs 100 inmates who assemble circuit boards for IBM, Dell and Texas Instruments, all non- union. The inmates are paid the minimum wage with 80 per cent of their wages deducted to pay "room and board" and "victim restitution". Texas taxpayers cover the inmates' health care and workers' compensation. Wackenhut's prison warden, Scott Comstock, told CAQ magazine's Reese Erlich, "I think that Texas, in particular, has proven that privatisation is a viable alternative." Wackenhut Corp last year reported a 27 percent increase in revenues, to US$530.3 million. Joe Gunn, President of the Texas AFL-CIO, has accused Wackenhut of profiting from "indentured slave labour" in its private Texas prisons. This system of prison labour exerts a strong downward pressure on the wage standard in "right-to-work" (for less) Texas. US workers are forced to compete not only with non-union sweatshop labour in places like Malaysia, but are also competing with prison labour in Texas. And it isn't limited to Texas. Oregon Prison Industries is producing "Prison Blues," stylish denim garments sold for profit around the world. Soledad Prison in California is also exporting garments made by prison inmates. Prisoners in Southern California, Utah and Ohio are doing "data entry" for profit-making corporations. Wisconsin's GOP Governor Tommy Thompson approved a scheme that used US$239,000 in taxpayer money to buy cutting and sewing machines that were installed in its prison in Green Bay. Fabry Glove and Mitten Company then closed down plants employing "free workers" and moved into the prison garment shop where it employs 100 inmates. The total cost to taxpayers was $1.6 million and the loss of many jobs. Wackenhut is surely licking its chops in anticipation of even greater profits in its prison "industrial parks" at home and abroad if George W Bush is elected President. CIA & FBI ties The rent-a-cop security corporation boasts that it has the nation's largest private collection of files on alleged "subversives", with dossiers on three million people in the United States. In the 1970s, it diversified into strikebreaking and scab-herding. Wackenhut works closely with the FBI and CIA, and guards nuclear weapons facilities and embassies. Recently, Wackenhut became the first private prison operator to take over a federal prison, a facility that houses many of the 25,000 undocumented immigrants detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Wackenhut operates 42 prisons across the United States. It has private prisons in Puerto Rico, England, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. More than 5,000 inmates from 14 states are now incarcerated at private "rent-a-cell" facilities in Texas. No wonder Texas has embraced "assembly line" procedures in its criminal justice system, filling its prisons with profit-generating inmates. Texas is also turning over many subsidiary services to private corporations. A consortium of the Marriott Corporation and Paris-based Sodexho are under contract to provide food services to private and state- owned prisons. Brutality The release of a videotape in 1997 of prison guards at Brazoria County Detention Center in Texas beating and kicking inmates, attacking them with a stun gun and a K-9 dog stirred much outrage. These were prisoners who were lying shackled on the jail floor. They had been convicted in Missouri but shipped to a Texas "rent-a-cell" facility operated by Capital Correctional Resources (CCR). The State of Missouri cancelled the contract and brought the inmates back to Missouri. In August 1998, two Oregon sex offenders escaped from a prison in Houston operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), largest of the prison privatisers. This was a minimum security facility used to house undocumented immigrant workers arrested by the INS. But too many of the cells were vacant to give CCA the desired profit margin. Without consulting state authorities, CCA imported 240 sex offenders from Oregon. The following month, a riot erupted at the Frio Detention Center, a private prison operated by the Dove Development Corporation. Texas had to send in 30 state correctional officers to subdue the 300 inmates from Utah and Missouri. The Bobby Ross Group, based in Austin, operates seven prisons in Texas, signing contracts to house inmates from Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, Virginia and Hawaii. Ross was a Texas sheriff who went into the private prison business in 1993. At the Bobby Ross Prison in Dickens County, inmates organised a protest against the inedible food and lack of proper medical care. Corruption Montana sent an investigator who found that the inmates "were going hungry and waiting days to see a doctor". But the Texas Commission on Jails gave the jail "the highest possible ratings". Their inspector later admitted that, in addition to his official duties, he also worked as a "consultant" for the Bobby Ross Group, which paid him a $42,000 annual retainer. In December 1998, 11 inmates escaped from the Bobby Ross prison in Newton, Texas. They released nearly 300 other inmates and set fire to one of the buildings. Ross' answer to the chorus of outrage was to hire William Sessions, who served as FBI director under Presidents Reagan and Bush, as a "special adviser ... He goes with us on sales calls to potential clients". We should not be surprised that Texas is currently operating private prisons that reek of the chain gangs and forced convict labour of a century ago. But a hard look at Texas tells us much about what may be in store if Bush is elected President and his fellow Texas lawmakers, Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, and Bill Archer, continue their gangster-like control of the House. As for the Senate, it is under the leadership of a Bush soul mate, Trent Lott of Mississippi, a devotee of the White Citizens Council whose state has its own history of convict labor and lynch law. "There is no question that Texas has given the private prison industry its biggest boost", said Gainsborough. "They built all these prisons to house their huge prison population and now they are importing inmates from all across the country." That is the brutal truth behind George W Bush's friendly smile.
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People's Weekly World, paper of Communist Party, USA.

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