The Prison Industrial Complex: The Crime of Addiction and an Addiction to Profit

Nothing makes people redefine addiction as a crime faster than the profit motive, largely because there is no better way to maximize profits than through slave labor.  In fact, maximizing increased returns from the one can only be assured through a substantial investment in redefining the other.  And those who stand to make the most understand how much their profits hinge on their ability to use, and in many instances even abuse, both. 

Generally speaking, a disease is as much a danger to the person who has it as it is to the society to which that person belongs.  It doesn’t matter if the person is suffering from sickle cell disease or addiction.  Yet one is treated with penicillin and the other with punishment.  Both methods are used to ‘protect society,’ per se, only one seeks to cure patients in a society while the other simply removes them.  While the different methods used to treat both diseases were instituted largely out of an ignorance that mistakenly defined the two as different, advancements in the understanding of diseases has allowed us to see how both, at least in some ways, are very much the same. 

The difference, however, is that powerful economic interests have grown too dependent upon the old definitions, and until as much profit can be made from the new understandings as is being generated from the current system of medieval beliefs, things are unlikely to change.  Why is this the case?  Because treating addicts like criminals has become the corner stone for America’s new kind of “supply side economics.” This kind of economic model is one that conservative economists like Milton Friedman either didn’t see coming, or perhaps had in mind all along.

Traditional ideas about “supply side economics” were based on the belief that economic growth could be created by reducing both regulation and taxes on capital gains and income.[i]  With the rise of the PIC, however, a new kind of ‘supply side economics” emerged that, in contrast to the old theory, thrived off an increase in regulation and taxes. The difference was that the old ideas applied to corporate persons while the new ideas would apply to real people. As companies became less regulated in a society, people became more, and as corporate taxes were reduced to attract and expand new businesses, personal taxes were increased to build prisons for an expanding number of newly defined criminals.  Eventually, one discovered a sinister way to increase its profits by feeding off of the other. That discovery would likewise result in nurturing both systems through an addiction to profits.   

  One of the greatest ironies of the PIC, therefore, is how some companies have developed an addiction to a source of cheap labor comprised mostly of addicts.   Breaking the addiction of the former, however, is far more difficult, because it would require not only a great deal of discomfort on the part of shareholders -  a group altogether amoral when it comes to decisions that effect share prices -  but also a willingness to break with a religious devotion to the bottom line.  In the religion of today’s economic theory, such a move would be considered a stock market sin, because it would require sacrificing profits over people. It just wouldn’t make good business sense, in other words, or dollars for that matter; dollars that could be used to pad the bottom line instead of paying a basic minimum wage. And it is just such “savings” that feeds corporate addiction. 

“Many companies have been exploiting prison labor forces at wages up to 80% or more below the national minimum wage ($5.15/hr). Contractors who have used this captive labor force include AT&T, U.S. West, Boeing, Chevron, Starbucks, Eddie Bauer…Microsoft, Dell Computers, and Bank of America.  In Ohio, for example, a Honda supplier pays its prison workers $2 an hour for the same work for which the UAW has fought for decades to be paid $20 to $30 an hour.  Konica has hired prisoners to repair its copiers for less than 50 cents an hour, and in Oregon private companies can lease prisoners for only $3 a day.[ii]  Prisoners do data entry, make telephone reservations, raise hogs, shovel manure, and make circuit boards, limousines, waterbeds, and lingerie for Victoria Secret, all at a fraction of the cost of “free labor.”[iii]
 Gordon Lafer further notes that private prisons are not only public service contractors, but the highest margin temp agencies in the nation. In Oregon, a number of public agencies are using prisoners for high-skill work that would otherwise be filled by regular public employees.  Such inexpensive help surely makes prison labor hard to resist.  What’s more, those who have invested in private prisons have found that prison labor is a pot of gold.  After all, prison employees require no payment of benefits and have almost no rights.  Additionally, there are no strikes, no unions, no unemployment insurance, and no workers compensation costs.  Such savings allows corporate firms, under government contract, to operate as cheaply as possible to insure profit. [iv]

And nothing ensures a corporations addiction to profit better than claiming that addicts are nothing but criminals. Considering the financial collapse of 2008, they certainly seem to have a point. In fact, it would be hard to find anyone in the world who knows more about the subject than they do. 

(NOTE: Milton Friedman, although a huge supporter of supply side economics, also believed that making drugs illegal not only ensured that criminals would have a monopoly over those drugs, which in turn would only increase their willingness to use violence to protect that monopoly, but that it was also immoral.  As such, his ideas on economics did not cause the PIC directly.  Instead, the PIC simply utilizes supply side economics to its advantage, and much to the disadvantage of everyone else.)


[i] Wikipedia
How corporations hurt us all: saving our rights, democracy, institution by Dan Butts, p. 70
[iii]Linda evans and eve Goldberg. Pg 84.Are Prisons Obsolete?
How corporations hurt us all: saving our rights, democracy, institution by Dan Butts, p. 70


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