Private Corrections, Financial Infrastructure, and Transportation: The New Geo-Economy of Shipping Prisoners

By Welch, Michael; Turner, Fatiniyah | Social Justice, Fall-Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Private Corrections, Financial Infrastructure, and Transportation: The New Geo-Economy of Shipping Prisoners


Welch, Michael, Turner, Fatiniyah, Social Justice


Introduction

THE EXPANDING PRIVATE PRISON INDUSTRY IS A CONTEMPORARY EXAMPLE OF COERCIVE social control that is driven by neoliberal economic policies and activities residing outside the conventional boundaries of criminal justice (Coyle et al., 2003; Jones and Newburn, 2005; Nathan, 2004). Among the clearest trends in the growth of private prisons is the increased involvement of an array of financial and corporate actors that pave the way for greater penal profit. "Recognizing an opportunity to make fortunes off the backs of prisoners and their families, Corporate America--including architects, bankers, building contractors, and telephone companies--lined up at the prison trough" (Pranis, 2003: 156). Indeed, private prison companies attract large investments that enable them to construct additional facilities that further widen their markets, aware that the supply of raw materials--prisoners--is likely to remain abundant into the foreseeable future (Adamson, 1984; Downes, 2001; Welch, 2003).

This article sets out to contribute to a critical understanding of prison privatization by tracking the flow of capital that supports the economic infrastructure vital for its expansion. In a manner of speaking, the project heeds the advice of "Deep Throat," the principal informant in the Watergate scandal, who advised investigative journalists Woodward and Bernstein to follow the money. While shedding light on the extent of corporate investment and institutional stockholdings, the analysis also turns attention to evidence of modern transportation in which prisoners are transferred across state lines solely to occupy cells in private prisons and detention facilities. A new geography of shipping convicts exposes further the larger phenomenon of prison profiteering. Given the prevailing neoliberal economic forces, the discussion addresses political and demographic implications of social inequality, exacerbated by a growing correctional apparatus (see Christie, 1994; Greene, 2002; Parenti, 2003).

"Correcting" the Economy

Imprisonment has become big business, and the bitter "not-in-my-backyard" attacks on prisons have been replaced with proud proclamations, such as the sign in Canon City, Colorado, reading "Corrections Capital of the World." The mayor of Canon City boasts, "We have a nice, nonpolluting, recession-proof industry here" (Brooke, 1997: 20). In Leavenworth, Kansas, a community that recently added a private prison to an already extensive corrections system that features a federal penitentiary, a state prison, and a military stockade, a billboard quips "How about doin' some TIME in Leavenworth?" Bud Parmer, site acquisition administrator for the Florida Department of Corrections conceded, "There's a new attitude ... small counties want a shot in the arm economically. A prison is a quick way to do it" (Glamser, 1996: 3A). Economically strapped towns induce jail and prison construction by offering land, cash incentives, and cut-rate deals on utilities; in return for these accommodations, locals receive jobs and spurs to other businesses such as department stores, fast-food chains, and motels, all of which contribute to the tax base (see Kilborn, 2001; Martin, 2000; Thies, 2001).

Whereas prisons are tightly courted on Main Street, on Wall Street the larger corrections industry has created a bull market--further evidence that crime does indeed pay. Tremendous growth in the prison population, coupled with astonishing increases in expenditures, has generated a lucrative market economy with seemingly unlimited opportunities for an array of financial players: entrepreneurs, lenders, investors, contractors, vendors, and service providers. In 2000, the World Research Group and the Reason Foundation hosted their Fifth Privatizing Correctional Facilities conference in San Antonio, Texas, under the banner "Grow Profits and Maximize Investment Opportunities in This Explosive Industry." Without much hesitation, corporate America has caught the scent of new public money. …

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