American prisons for profit

Posted June 23, 2009, at 6:07 p.m.

Good news, everybody: This week the government did not make cigarettes illegal.

Oh sure, Congress gave control over cigarettes to the Food and Drug Administration. And now the good-for-nothing, scratch that, good-for-dying tobacco companies can’t make outlandish claims such as “low tar” any more. In some other column we may explore the time-honored practice of allowing companies to lie on their packaging. But that would necessitate discussing some ridiculously big issues like corporate personhood — you know, where corporations have the same rights as people even though they aren’t people. For now we don’t have time to open that can of worms.

Instead, we’ll talk about how many U.S. citizens already live in U.S. jails. After all, we’re the incarceration capital of the world.

The Justice Department says that more than half the people in jail or prison are doing time for drug offenses. And 28 percent of the folks in jails are awaiting trial and haven’t even been convicted yet. Imagine what the percentage of incarcerated substance abusers and detained alleged substance abusers would be if tobacco were an illegal drug. The National Health Interview Survey says that 45 million Americans smoke and most of them, like the president of the United States, just can’t quit.

Besides, we’ve already started in the last five years to fill our prisons with other people, folks who haven’t done anything criminal. See, we don’t have room in our jails for nicotine addicts because we’ve started filling the empty beds with undocumented workers. Lucky for smokers the tobacco industry has more cache in D.C. than grape pickers do.

See, in what turned out to be a real win-win for the U.S. prison industry — both public and private — an arm of the government called the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency began incarcerating suspected illegal aliens instead of just deporting them.

According to the Arizona newspaper The Douglas Dispatch, there are about 30,000 of these people locked up each night at a cost to taxpayers of about $95 per person. Nearly two-thirds of them have no criminal record at all. I bet most of the émigré children we’ve locked up are in that group.

And now private prisons are making out like bandits off this prison policy that costs us $2.85 million a night. Go to the Department of Justice Web site to read the inane justification for incarcerating noncriminals in for-profit jails.

But this really isn’t about the U.S. imprisoning whole families just for trying to come here. It’s about the U.S. outsourcing more and more of those inmates to for-profit entities. And it’s about how long it will be before these for-profit jails lobby Congress to find good reason to lock up your family, too.

They’ve already found reason to imprison us at an alarming rate. Our prison population is growing exponentially. Again quoting the Department of Justice, the U.S. prison population was a million in 1996 and 2.3 million in 2008. These figures are even more remarkable when you read the CNN report that crime rates had leveled off in the last 20 years. Of course, that’s expected to change with the recession. But just in case we don’t have a good reason to keep these for-profit jails in business — nearly 20 states and the federal government use them — maybe we’ll just invent a new class of criminal. You know, as we did with the undocumented workers or, as I feared this week: cigarette smokers.

And in case you’re wondering how deportation turned into incarceration, you might have heard of Department of Homeland Security general counsel Philip J. Perry. Yes, Mr. Perry used to be a lobbyist for the private prison firm Corrections Corporation of America, CCA. And yes, since Mr. Perry took over at Homeland Secu-rity, the Department of Justice confirms that CCA gets 53 percent of the business imprisoning undocumented workers.

Oh yeah, one other thing about Mr. Perry, he got his Homeland Security job while his father-in-law was vice president. That’s right, he learned from the best — the former CEO of Halliburton, the architect of outsourced private contractor war — none other than Dick Cheney himself.

After all that, don’t you just feel like having a cigarette?

Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@hotmail.com.

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