Prison Labor Schemes Are Getting Out Of Hand, Critics Say.
By Tim Vanderpool
THE IMAGES ARE dramatic, even righteously romantic: Strings of criminal hard-cores, all chained like dogs, a thousand Cool Hand Lukes decked in orange and repenting sins to the rasp of shovels striking asphalt.
Or convicts-for-hire in privately run jailhouse sweatshops, indentured grunts paying both their dues and upkeep pounding out bookcases and bi-focals bound for retail shelves.
And at first blush it appears as justice served, like an angry society finally exacting its due on the backs of vicious rule-breakers. But peek behind the symbolism, say critics of current punishment philosophy, and you'll find enough political demagoguery and corporate profiteering to make eye-for-an-eye rhetoric blink, and a growing army of embittered felons gazing towards eventual repatriation on our streets.
Quaker-affiliated American Friends Service Committee exposes the theoretical snake pit underlying these correctional trends on Saturday, November 16, when it hosts Factories With Fences: A Forum on Prison Labor and Privatization.
Speakers range from keynoter Patricia Clark, coordinator of the AFSC's National Criminal Justice Project, to Donna Hamm of Middle Ground Prison Reform, and Paul Gattone of the Southern Arizona People's Law Center.
Catalina Spencer, a Tucson human rights organizer, founder of the Southwest Film Institute and host of KXCI's Radioactive and Broad Perspectives Radio programs, recently asked Clark, Hamm, Gattone and AFSC coordinator Caroline Isaacs for their perspectives on these sticky issues.
According to Isaacs, the conference "grew out of concern with trends towards increased use of prison labor and privatization of correctional facilities through for-profit organizations."
She pulls out a fistful of unsettling statistics to augment those worries. "Due to excessive coverage of crime and election-year rhetoric, most people are under the impression crime rates have skyrocketed in recent years," she says. "But according to the U.S. Department of Justice, crime rates--including violent crime--have been remarkably steady since 1970."
The murder rate actually dropped nine percent from 1980 to 1992, she says, and is now equivalent to the '70s. "Yet the number of people in prisons has tripled since 1980, from 500,000 to 1.5 million. And of these the majority are non-violent offenders."
Housing each inmate costs taxpayers an average of $22,000 annually, she says, noting that $9.7 billion was also allocated for new prisons in the 1994 federal crime bill.
"And now various departments of correction are using for-profit organizations to run prisons and pay for the additional costs," she says.
Patricia Clark, who cut her reformist teeth as executive director of Death Penalty Focus in California, and as the director of the Klanwatch Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Atlanta, says she's not necessarily against taking prisoners to task. "On one hand, we criminal justice practitioners feel very strongly that prisoners should be able to work and make some kind of income, both for things that are needed within the prison, to help family members on the outside, and for potential restitution for victims' family members."
The rub, she says, comes in the lure of cheap labor, drawing companies into the jails and taking jobs away from poor people beyond prison walls. "The reason is obviously that you can pay prisoners basically anything you want," she says.
She compares it to jobs being shipped to Mexico or overseas.
"And you have to look at the overall motivation for that--profit, profit, profit," she says.
Add privatized prisons to the mix, and you come up with a rancid correctional stew, Clark says, "that take facilities away from the public domain, where you have a whole correctional department that's basically appointed by the state, and that the state is responsible for overseeing."
The result is growing neglect of prisoners' needs, she says. "By and large prisons don't have a great reputation even now for the way services and treatment are conveyed and delivered. That's a major concern for us."
Then come chain gangs, meant solely to "degrade and humiliate people. A lot of things like that done in prisons make folks even more bitter, more hardened, and they become potentially much more difficult to live with on the outside, by virtue of how they've been treated on the inside," she says.
Donna Hamm, the wife of a former inmate, has become a sharp critic of Arizona corrections policies, and a large thorn in the side of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who's garnered plenty of press with his high-profile chain gangs.
"On one hand, he complains that these are dangerous people, escape risks and disciplinary problems, and that's why they have to be chained together," Hamm says. "But at every opportunity--when it's expedient to the state prison system--the media is allowed to go right up to prisoners and stick microphones in their faces. Clearly, the prisoners would not be getting the same attention doing their work if they weren't in chains."
She recalls when Arpaio recently instituted female chain gangs, and European photographers handed the women lipstick and combs before shooting. "That's not the kind of operation used by prison officials who feel they are dealing with dangerous people," she says.
And the gangs illustrate our current abandonment of teaching the inmates skills they can later use on the outside, she says. "After all, there is no correlation between rehabilitation and rocks and chains."
Such approaches also place constitutional guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment at stake, says Paul Gattone. "We're allegedly a civilized and advanced country here, but all we can come up with when faced with crime problems is more and more punishment," he says. "And right now it appears we're ready to throw the Eighth Amendment out the window.
"You don't fight crime in our society by just going through all these politically expedient publicity stunts, by having people chained together."
Clark says the critical time for reform is now, both in how and why America puts its citizens behind bars. "We have to make a choice. There are predictions that by the middle of the next century, we'll have as many people in prisons as there are on the outside. Do we want a society that's caged? And do we want a society that's built on fear?"
Meanwhile, "We've demonized folks who are involved in criminal activity," she says. "If you look at the rhetoric around criminal justice issues these days, it is that we need to be harsher, tougher, more punitive.
"So it doesn't matter if someone has gone astray but has potential and things to contribute. They did something wrong, so we're going to punish them to the maximum extent allowed. That's an attitudinal thing that really needs to change. But that's not the kind of thing that makes a good 30-second soundbite."
Factories With Fences runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, November 16, at the Northwest Neighborhood Center, 2160 N. Sixth Ave. Admission is free. Call 623-9141. Catalina Spencer's interview with Patricia Clark will air on KXCI's Radioactive this Friday, November 15, at 6:30 p.m.
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