Tuesday, January 25, 2011

And the Home of the Frightened

Remember this chart from yesterday?
What happened in the 1980's that changed America into a country that needs to lock millions of her citizens away in prison? Two words: Ronald Reagan.

The Politics of Fear
For nearly a century a central focus of Republican politics has been that Americans must be terrified of their neighbors. The Red Scares and McCarthyism had Republicans preaching there was a Commie lurking under every bed. Only by spying on your neighbors and turning them in at the first sign of liberal thought could you "protect freedom."

While McCarthy's apprentice, Richard Nixon, started it, Reagan perfected the art of subtly blaming African-Americans for all of the nation's woes. Reagan introduced the phrase "welfare queen" to the nation.

While Reagan was never so crass as to use overtly racist imagery (like George Bush Sr. and his Willie Horton ads, William Bennett who claimed that America could reduce crime by simply aborting all black babies, and everything from Jesse Helms), he did argue for and see pass draconian sentencing laws and began a prison building boom in his "war" on a non-existent crime wave.

Prison Privatization
The modern private for profit prison industry began in 1984 under Reagan with the Corrections Corporation of America.
After the Civil War southern states used the criminal justice system as a substitute for slavery and created chain gangs. Private prisons have the same economic model. Also, most states rent out their prisoners to private companies as cheap labor.

Prisoners are advertised as cheap labor. They are also marketed as disposable labor. Where free Americans might demand safety equipment, prison labor has to go where it is told and do what it is ordered. 

The problem with this economic model is that murderers, rapists, and other psychopaths don't make for reliable workers so there is a premium on filling prisons with non-violent offenders. In the Federal prison system less than 4% of the prisoners were convicted of violent crimes. Including state prisons, roughly half of all prisoners are non-violent. California is releasing violent criminals ahead of the more marketable non-violent commodity, er, prisoners.

Don't expect an end any time soon to our American Gulag. Too many people are making too much money on our 21st century version of indentured servitude.

No comments: