Many books and articles decrying mass imprisonment use the term “prison industrial complex”, and many of us know that it refers to the financial aspects of incarcerating a population of immense scale. Many of us also know about the for profit business of private prisons and its many ills. But few are privy to the nitty gritty aspects of the prison industry.
The edited collection Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration fills this gap with a distressing collection of snapshots of the prison industry. Herivel and Wright did an excellent job of picking authors with intimate knowledge of the crevices of the financial machine behind mass incarceration, and the essays illuminate aspects that, even to those of us who study prisons, often remain unseen.
The essays in the first part of the book, The Political Economy of Prisons, provide a general background to prison finance, explicating (in Kevin Pranis’ essay) the mechanism of bond finance and the collaboration between banks and local governments that leads to opaque, disturbing financial deals that remain hidden from, and thus uncriticized by, the public. Jennifer Gonnerman’s discussion of “million dollar blocks,” that is, neighborhood blocks the incarceration of whose residents costs the nation untold amounts of money, calls for a different distribution of funds – to invest them in the neighborhoods that yield prison population in the first place, rather than in the distant prison. The distance between prisons and the communities of origin of inmates is illuminated in Gary Hunter and Peter Wagner’s discussion of the impact of prisons on the census, and the detrimental effect that a a large population of non-voting, non-deciding citizens has on the democratic process and on local government funding. Clayton Mosher et al provide data that refutes the assumption that cities that agree to build prisons in their midst fare better economically. And Paul Wright discusses the harm of glorifying prisons in popular culture.
The second part of the book, The Private Prison Industry, discusses a better known part of the problem – private prison companies. But the essays do a great job at exposing the mechanisms through which these companies make money and lobby for punitive legislation and policy. Having just read in the paper that a university stadium in Florida is destined to bear the name of a private prison company, GEO, these essays are even more poignant. Ian Urbina’s essay on the prevalence of prison labor, and the multiple ways in which it destroys the larger labor market, is particularly notable.
The third part of the book, Making Out Like Bandits, is a series of ground-level exposes on different aspects of the for-profit industry: The deceitful marketing techniques of tasers (by Anne-Marie Cusac), the horrific abuse and neglectful safety measures taken by private prison transportation companies (by Alex Friedmann, the exorbitant prices of telephone calls and their detrimental ostracizing impact on inmates and their families (by Steven Jackson), the proliferation of high-tech gear and workshops for prison staff (by Jennifer Gonnerman), and the horrors of privatized prisons for youth (by Tara Herivel). But the most devastating essays are by Will Hylton and Paul von Zielbauer, which dissect the private health care providers. Here in CA, the standards exposed in Plata and Coleman might lead one to think that no one can provide worst health care than the states. These essays offer sobering evidence to the contrary, and the multiple examples of medical neglect and indifference are truly heartbreaking.
The collection does not offer high-level analysis of the meaning of the incarceration industry. For that, one must turn to the many big-picture works already out and available. Instead, it provides much-needed foci on the many aspects in which privatization permeates every possible aspect of incarceration. The essays are full of examples and written in an easy-to-read journalistic style. I highly recommend educating yourself not only about your tax money’s role in this, but about the many businesses that benefit from this somber enterprise.