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The World Outside

A weekly column exploring issues relating to the environment, the future of our planet and that of mankind.

Gulags in the Land of the Free

— Filed under: Politics & Government, Opinion
The prisoner's dilemma is an example of game t...

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"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever" - from George Orwell's 1984

For millions of Americans this is their future. How else can you describe a person's future as a prisoner of the American Prison Industrial complex? Take a look at the facts and figures and what you will find is incredibly frightening and something needs to be done about it.

I'm not saying that people who commit horrible crimes shouldn't be locked up but when one in every 18 men are either behind bars or being monitored there is something wrong in society. As of June 2009[update], 2,297,400 were incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails  This means America, the land of the free, has the worlds largest prison population. The worst part is that although crime rates have declined by about 25 percent from 1988-2008 the Prison population has increased dramatically in same period. This cost the states $47 billion dollars in 2008.

Many states are now turning to private industry to reduce costs. Private companies which provide services to prisons combine in the American Correctional Association, which advocates legislation favorable to the industry such as mandatory sentencing. These companies comprise what is known as the Prison Industrial Complex which is rapidly becoming an essential part of the American economy. Its real purpose is profit and social control. Its public rationale is the fight against crime. 

Thanks to prison labor, the United States is once again an attractive location for investment in work that was designed for Third World labor markets. In Texas, a factory fired its 150 workers and contracted the services of prisoner-workers from the private Lockhart Texas prison, where circuit boards are assembled for companies like IBM and Compaq. The prisoners are paid minimum wage and then the prison then takes about 80 percent of inmate wages for room and board, victim restitution and other fees. 

This has to be stopped otherwise in the future a large portion of American industry will be run from private prisons where the workers will be slaves working for pennies. Private prisons must be abolished and the criminal justice system needs serious reforms. If you are still in doubt click on this link here for the 14 most ridiculous things Americans are arrested for.

Winston Smith's picture


I've long had misgivings about privately operated and for-profit prisons. Something just seems wrong there... a conflict of interest if you will.

A little bit scary overall about the size of the US prison population. Something isn't working there.

timedesign's picture


Ok, what is bad news for the brown lawn lady is good news for economists.

A significant amount of the US GDP (still far and ways the world's largest) is made up of the fantastic amounts of money spent on prisons, healthcare and, to a lesser extent, higher education. If these institutions were nationalised, Americans would find themselves with a significantly smaller economy. 

Winston Smith's picture

Brown lady?

Who (or what) is the brown lady?

What do you think about prisons in general? I'd be interested to know your opinion... I don't believe we've discussed this before...

timedesign's picture

brown lawn lady

The aformentioned lady was arrested and taken to prison for having a brown lawn. It was in the link in Ethan's article. I have no idea if she really is brown.

DaveR's picture

good stuff

Good article, interesting. This needs to be explored.

Ethan's picture

thanks for the comments

As of now Private Prisons are only legal in 28 states but the Industry is unfortunately growing quickly. For example in 1992 Corrections Corporation of America stock was $8 a share and now it is $30.

Prisons run for profit is a crazy idea and putting factories and call centers behind bars as they have already done is practically slave labour. This cannot be good for the economy and society in the long run. What about all the people that go through the prison system and return to society. You only have to watch a few episodes of America's hardest prisons to see prison gangs are divided by race. This means a large percentage of people leaving prisons will become much more racist as a result of their time behind bars.

You are right about spending though Timedesign, only healthcare receives more money than the prison system. I only hope people wake up and put a stop to this before America becomes a Police state.

Bernard's picture

So what would you propose we

So what would you propose we do with these criminals, Mr. Ethan?

Thomas's picture

I have just been pointed to

I have just been pointed to this article by your wife on the UTAS discussion boards (you should thank her for free publicity!).

I agree that profiting from what fundamentally amounts to slave labour, as you mentioned, is wrong. Especially if it impacts on hard-working and law-abiding citizens, as in the case of transferring production from 150 'ordinary' people to Texan prisoners. However, I don't see creating a workforce from convicted felons as being a cut-and-dry bad thing: if it doesn't impact on existing or potential employees, and if they're paid fairly (which one could hope may be saved for reintegration) then you are not only satisfying a consumer demand but also encouraging a skill set that will potentially ready them for employment and facilitate becoming a productive member of society. 

This may be an overly optimistic and simplistic view, but surely with the right oversight and guidelines, prisoners can be encouraged to work to satisfy demand rather than twiddling their thumbs.