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Fix the Prisons? Part II

I stated in Part I of this blog that the prison system is "functional" in that it benefits some segments of the population.  One obvious segment it benefits is all of those who work inside.  Indeed, with $68 billion in annual expenditures on the American prison system plus strong unions in many states you have a very strong vested interest in keeping the prison a going concern (the "reforms" would serve mostly to make working conditions and pay and benefits much better).  Then too we have all of the private vendors that profit from prisons (not to mention local jails).  Elsewhere I have written extensively about the "prison industrial complex" (see my web site: for examples) so I do not need to elaborate except to say that hundreds of companies make a lot of money with things like linen, toiletries, food, phone service, health care, security devices, furniture, etc.  Clearly maintaining a prison reaps billions of dollars in revenue to corporations.  Also, prisons function to sort of "manage the underclass" or the "rabble" (as stated so well by John Irwin and Jim Austin, among others).  Those who find themselves behind bars are typically from the most disadvantaged segments of society (disproportionately minorities). Since there is no room for them in the present economic system (this was so even before the current crisis), prisons provide a place for them. 

As to the drug war, what more can I say other than to echo what many others are saying, namely, that overcrowded prisons are a natural consequence of prohibiting something that is in great demand.  Legalize these drugs (with a lot of government regulation of course) and you take the profits away.  You also take away the scandals that have rocked the criminal justice system over and over again.

So shall we "fix" or "reform" the prison or engage in the kinds of changes that would make the prison largely unnecessary?  Do we extend the benefits of the American capitalist system to those that have been historically left out so that they would not have the need to engage in the kinds of crimes (especially drug use) that lead them to prison?  Do we eliminate drug laws and hence their enforcement? 

In other words, instead of "fixing" or "reforming" the prison, let's fix the social conditions that make the prison a functional institution.

Keywords: adult corrections, interest groups, Randall Shelden

Posted in Blog, Correctional Institutions

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