The Guardian August 22, 2001


Is this Australia's future?
The US "prison industry" exposed

by Jean-Guy Allard

Thousands of US citizens, angered by a judicial system which increasingly 
resorts to specialised firms to manage its ever-growing prison population, 
met in Philadelphia recently, in parallel with the annual convention of the 
so-called "industrial prison complex"  the conference of the American 
Correctional Association (ACA). The protestors gathered to denounce what 
they describe as an increasingly unjust and racist prison system.

The current political trial of five Cubans indicted for trying to protect 
their country against the criminal activities of Miami-based terrorists, 
has provoked scrutiny of the highly singular world of the US judicial 
system. This includes scrutiny of the FBI and its investigative methods and 
the isolation of prisoners in the sinister "hole" at the federal detention 
centre in Florida.

The high point of this prison world's calendar is the ACA convention, where 
crime and justice are traded by specialist firms registered on the stock 
market.

The wave of privatisation that took place in the 1990s was responsible for 
the creation of an incarceration industry which, since that time, has 
burgeoned into a prosperous branch of the US economy. Its shares are among 
the most coveted in financial circles.

"Prison is big business, very big business", says Kobutsu Malone, a 
reporter on the web site of the protest organisers (www.stoptheeaca.org).

He explains that "the secure housing, minimal support, minimal medical care 
and feeding of 2.2 million people [in prison] is a costly endeavour 
consuming billions of dollars of taxpayers' money every year in America.

"Corporations are lined up to receive a portion of the public funds used to 
support the self-perpetuating incarceration industry."

Horrific

He uses the following horrific example: "States such as California spend 
more public funds on prisons than for education and schools."

Effectively, more than two million US citizens are being held in hundreds 
of prisons, penitentiaries and other detention centres in the United 
States. The US is the nation with the highest number of citizens behind 
bars in the world.

Worse still, five million of that country's citizens are either imprisoned, 
released on bail or under conditional liberty  all of this in a nation that 
uses "freedom" as a trademark.

Another statistic giving the lie to the much-celebrated "American dream" is 
that one in 25 US citizens are arrested every year. Since 1980 the prison 
population has increased threefold and it is estimated that by 2005 it will 
have doubled.

So, Philadelphia provided the venue for this enormous business convention 
for those who reap the highest yields from the prison industry.

According to the protest organisers those attending range from companies 
who manufacture the serum and needles for executions, phone companies who 
scam millions out of friends and families of inmates, corporations which 
build, buy and operate for-profit prisons, corporations that contract out 
prison labour (prisoners get paid as little as 19 cents per hour), and 
lobbying groups advocating longer and harsher sentences.

The industrialised prisons have performed the "miracle" of converting 
punishment into a utility and the most dissimilar investors have appeared 
in this new and prosperous industrial complex. They include American 
Express and General Electric, companies that have invested in private 
prisons in Oklahoma and Tennessee. 

"KFC", the US fried chicken king, are shareholders in Corrections 
Corporation of America which is number one in the world of money making 
from incarceration, with 53,000 people detained in its institutions. It is 
a known fact that some inmates are detained in CCA prisons far longer than 
their sentence stipulates.

"Sodexho Marriot": The biggest supplier of food products for prisoners with 
US$4.5 billion of business per year and CCA's main shareholder. Sodexho 
Marriot is globalising its experiences, being the owner of UK Detention 
Services.

"AT&T, Verizon (Bell Atlantic/GTE), Western Union": These telephone 
companies take huge advantage of the isolation created by detention. 
Prisoners have no other option but to make collect calls from prisons at 
rates only comparable to the appetite of these communications giants.

"Wakenhut": Created by former FBI and CIA agents, Wakenhut supplies 
electronic security systems to prisons and has started to construct and 
manage its own penitentiaries, including all refugee detention centres in 
Australia. It uses prison labour to assemble its electronic products.

"Prison Health Services" is responsible for the health of 325,000 prisoners 
in 150 prisons in 29 US states. It has been frequently criticised even in 
court for the poor quality of medical attention available to prisoners.

"UNICOR": The Federal Bureau of Prisons runs prison factories. It produces 
furniture, cables, printers, posters and helmets and recycles computer 
material from the Ministry of Defence  its most important client.

According to the eminent Black activist Angela Davis, who was imprisoned on 
various occasions for her political activities, companies like IBM, 
Microsoft, Motorola, Compaq, Texas Instruments, Honeywell and Boeing have 
contracts with employment companies controlling the work of thousands of 
prisoners performing contracted prison labour.

This is what Davis describes as "basically slave labour in sweat shop 
conditions for unbelievably low wages".

In Oregon the cynicism of big business has gone so far as to utilise 
prisoners to make blue jeans under the Prison Blues label. The advertising 
for the brand features a young Hispanic prisoner and coins the slogan, 
"Made on the inside to be worn on the outside".

From behind bars inmates in Maryland inspect jars and bottles used by the 
super-famous Revlon and Pierre Cardin brands.

Racism as money spinner

One of the aims of the Philadelphia protest was to expose racism, 
exacerbated by the mass media, as a source of profit for the companies 
involved in this new form of slavery.

Once again the statistics are shocking:

* More than 70 per cent of US prisoners are people of colour;
* There are five times more black males in prison than in colleges and 
universities;
* Black women are the fastest growing group of prisoners;
* Proportionally native Americans constitute the largest prison group;
* In seven federal districts where whites constitute two thirds of the 
population, 80 percent of new prisoners are non-white;
* In New York, where the prison population has swelled from 35,000 to 
70,000, 90 percent of this group are non-white.

Self-regulation

The most absurd aspect of the ACA's dealings is its privilege, recognised 
by the state, to determine detention standards. The ACA is responsible for 
granting licences to its own members  an obvious case of conflict of 
interest. These standards and licences are recognised by the judicial 
system.

This situation is so illogical that Dale Sechrest, the expert who conceived 
and set up the ACA auditing system, has just joined a group of citizens 
demanding an investigation into an ACA-accredited jail in Boston.

* * *
Granma International

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