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E-Letter To Peter Slevin and The Washington Post Re: "Prison Firms Seek Inmates And Profits"

Your article, "Prison Firms Seek Inmates And Profits" is a valuable contribution to the literature regarding the prison-industrial complex. Your piece does a good job of revealing the economic and political motivations, which shape the incarceration industry. And quite frankly, we think it is a good thing that the shortcomings and reduced profitability of several of the private prison management firms are being revealed.

However, the real measure of the success or failure of a prison system can not just be measured in terms of outbreaks of violence inside of their walls or whether firms are making profits by managing prison facilities. The real measure of success or failure has to be whether or not prisoners are being reformed as crime is being reduced. Are correctional facilities really correcting the broken lives of men and women? And is that correction lasting?

Sadly, the answer is no, because the prison system as your article implies, is not established to produce reform. And this country's criminal justice system is marked by sentencing disparities that lock up non-whites at a higher rate for whites for non-violent crimes.

These poorer non-whites are made to serve more time in jail for the use and sale of marijuana and crack than wealthier whites for the sale of powder cocaine and ecstasy. These sentences result in a prison system disproportionately populated by Black and Latino men, but increasingly women, who are warehoused, ignored, mistreated and used as cheap labor to produce products for corporate America.

In his 1993 book, Torchlight For America, Nation of Islam Leader Minister Louis Farrakhan summed up the prison problem quite well when he wrote,

"The prison system is not set up to reform. It's a dead end. In a Philadelphia study, it was found that 35% of all males had been arrested at least once. Fifty-four percent of those arrested at least once were arrested a third time. And 72% of those arrested three times were arrested a fourth. The rate of recidivism, or tendency to return to criminal habits, indicates that there is no real reform.

In fact, the inmates's propensity toward criminal behavior only worsens after going to prison. And $18,000 of the taxpayer's money is spent per year per inmate to keep them in prison. In effect billions are spent each year to create and maintain hardened criminals that remain the outcasts of society."

And as your article reveals, even politicians are getting into the act - wanting prisons built in their neighborhoods strictly for the economic benefits. And while your piece does not mention this fact, many mayors and governors want prisons built in their states not just because it means jobs among their constituencies but also because the prisoners, many of whom will be transported from other states, are actually counted in the local and state populations. This increase in populations is calculated in county and census records and results in increased federal and state funding for a variety of purposes.

But this selfish economic argument for the housing of out-of state prisoners again ignores the issue of prisoner reform. It is now an established fact that recidivism occurs at a higher rate for prisoners who are housed out of state, well out of the reach of family and friends, as opposed to those prisoners who are able to receive regular visits from their loved ones.

There is no doubt that an unfair criminal justice system; a lust for profits in the prison business; political ambition and the dismissal of prevention and reform are the driving force behind the dramatic increase in incarceration that has occurred in the 1990s. If America as a society and Black America, in particular, are to repair its families and dramatically reduce crime the focus on preventative and rehabilitative programs and instruments will have to increase.

It is only a matter of setting priorities

If nothing else your article helps to further make that case.


Cedric Muhammad

Monday, February 19, 2001

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