By Christopher Smith Read
The institution of slavery is still alive and well in these United States. For authority, I cite the U.S. Constitution, Amendment XIII: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Readers doubting the actual effect this has on the twenty-first century, consider this: the author, as a person “duly convicted” of a crime, is required to work for the Virginia Department of Corrections, as a condition of his good time earning allowance, and is paid 45 cents per hour. Minimum wage laws do not apply to slaves. If he doesn’t work, then the department, through its own legislatively delegated authority, can make him serve his entire 10 year sentence.
This is the reality for millions of men and women throughout this putatively liberty-loving country; a country which, with proper historical, economic, and political context, has zero choice to be what it is: the world leader for keeping people in bondage. Granted, many countries subject prisoners to far more barbaric forms of imprisonment, but the U.S. nevertheless stands quite alone when it comes to the sheer scale of its operations. And United States’ prisons are barbaric for a far more insidious reason: U.S. prisons impose a strict regimen of pure, profit-driven apathy.
How we got to this point is no mystery. In fact, we’ve been doing things this way for so long that even before 1776, when we declared ourselves independent, the stage was set for today. As I’ll argue, we have no choice in the matter; structurally, the U.S. was destined to commoditize human flesh. And only through wholesale, aggressive federal legislation – or better yet, Constitutional amendment – will this ever change. But this analysis will end with what the author sees as a naively Panglossian prescription, given the alignment of the current interests in this country. That said, as Red, played by Morgan Freeman, concedes over and over again in “Shawshank Redemption” : “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”
Over three centuries ago, in 1714, a transplant from Rotterdam settled into London and penned this scandalous poem:
“Millions endeavor to supply
Each others Lust and Vanity…
Thus every Part was full of Vice,
Yet the whole Mass a Paradise.”
Bernard de Mandeville (1670-1733), laid down the claim that “private vices are public virtues” in his “Fable of the Bees”, a sentiment not denied by the Father of Capitalism, Adam Smith (1723-1780), but put forth in his “Wealth of Nations”, with far more sensitivity to the era’s puritanical sensibilities than Mandeville could muster. Even still, both men had identified the beating heart of today’s free market, capitalist economies: people responding to incentives, exploiting opportunities with no regard for society’s well-being, and yet through their consumption, benefitting us all nonetheless.
And there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that capitalism generates wealth. Nor is there any real argument to be had that capitalism’s nearest competitors can even contend. They can’t. But, as with all things, there is a tradeoff; or, as economist’s call it, an opportunity cost. For to make a few immensely wealthy, and most historically far more comfortable than their ancestors, millions will find themselves locked in cages for profit. In a cruel twist, then, many victims of their of own vice, no doubt, will be locked away for public benefit – bees who can never come back to the hive.
Economies are circular networks; one person’s spending is another person’s income. Thus pretty much every tax dollar spent on incarceration ends up back into the hands of private enterprise. The concrete and fence contractors providing the means of bondage, the massive food distributors responsible for providing prisoners with the sustenance – just barely; even the army of correctional officers’ paychecks – all of this eventually worms its way back into private hands, private hands which constitute an asset holding class of people, U.S. citizen or not.
The asset holding class – or Marx’s capitalists – generally do not vote against their own interest. And they generally have an outsize influence on politics, being the people most likely to donate to politicians who will vouchsafe their wealth on the floors of this country’s legislative bodies.
And running prisons says nothing of the mega corporations existing in a symbiotic relationship with the state. Keefe Commissary Group, GTL, Bob Barker Corp., Armor Correctional Health, these are just a few named familiar to nearly every modern prisoner. Mega corporations such as these shamelessly gouge prisoners and their families, all with the blessing of the state in which they operate.
Yet, who can really blame the institutions and firms involved? Where’s the incentive not to seek profit from what lawbreakers have done to wrong society? If the state is to tax its citizens for arresting, prosecuting, and punishing those who harm society, then what’s wrong with getting tax payers the most utility for their dollar? In theory, if private enterprise, contracted to do what the state’s duty is, insofar as incarceration is concerned, can offset – or net out – the cost of its prisons, then society benefits; teleologically, this all sounds good and well. And the father of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), had exactly this in mind with his Panopticon, which, interestingly enough, Parliament shot down because they feared the corruptive effects private enterprises would have on the lives of the Kingdom’s prisoners. One today cannot avoid the feeling that this presumption was particularly prescient.
Britain’s Parliament was right to be suspicious. The problem with this utilitarian line of thinking is its paradoxically antithetical quality in light of the very idea – the central focus – of this country’s founding: liberty. How ironic the country oppressing us saw this yet we didn’t. And still don’t.
To see the root issue here we again turn to the Constitution. Fully four of the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution are intended to protect those accused and convicted of crimes. As much as liberty is explicitly revered in our founding document, the implicit reverence is no less apparent. Which is why, structurally, our free-market economy, with its incentives to commoditize people, is inherently at odds with what we hold most dear: freedom. Simply put, where there exists any incentive at all of the monetary sort to put people in bondage, then the interests of liberty and capitalism clash.
Capitalism, however, cannot be cast off. It works too well. It creates too high a standard of living for far too many to replace with something untested. Though that does not imply market should run unfettered; that’s exactly why people are overly incarcerated today. Rather, the seemingly impossible task is to remind the people that liberty trumps profit, insofar as punishment is concerned.
Thus the author envisions a realignment of priorities, eschewing, by legislation, the incentives so at odds with liberty. In order to radically change the structure of our economy, to reduce the suffering of over incarceration – and ineffective incarceration – we must ensure the state and its private partners have zero monetary incentive to engage in such conflict-prone, deleterious practices in the first place. Positive policy changes will mean society actually pays for incarceration, and that the only real return is of people who’ve been truly rehabilitated. Thus the incentive must be for society to actually invest in those who run afoul of the law. Manufacturing need only perpetuates the problem.
When society actually pays for incarceration, then society will be incentivized to invest properly in the prophylactics to crime: education, vocational training, substances abuse counseling, and diversionary programs in lieu of incarceration. We do these things now, but they are lacking in efficiency and effectiveness.
This all skews left on the political spectrum, yet it’s far more than a matter of politics. But must we as a society simply box ourselves into the tribalistic corners from where we feel comfortable? Why can’t we dialogue, mutually engage, and share in diagnosing what’s wanting in society, without being beholden to some homogeneous theory of political and economic function?
The reality is that the incentive exists for the state to incarcerate any of us at any time because a whole industry – and wealth – has been erected on top of liberty. Society must have prisons. But society shouldn’t let that need drift into the realm of liberty. Until this incentive is removed, the over-incarceration will continue. We have no choice in the matter.
Christopher Smith Read #1770228
Haynesville Correctional Center