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The Public in Republican: The Privatization of Prisons and Universities
In 1944 the great Hungarian political economist Karl Polanyi penned The Great Transformation in which he vituperated conservatives for privatizing common property resources. He writes, for example, that “allow[ing] the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate of human beings” will “result in the demolition of society.”
Forty years later, in 1984, I was born.
I was born in 1984 and since the year of my birth the number of human bodies in the United States languishing under some form of state surveillance has ballooned by nearly 400% despite a U.S. population rising ten times as slowly.
I was born in 1984 and since the year of my birth the number of private corrections facilities has burgeoned by 4000%. I was born in 1984 and since the year of my birth the number of black men in prison has grown by 800%; 73% of people of color incarcerated since 1984 are non-violent, drug-related offenders.
I was born in 1984 and since the year of my birth the number of black men in college has withered by almost 50%. Today, there are some 820,000 black men in cells, but only 270,000 in dorms.
I was born in 1984, the year that incumbent President Ronald Reagan defeated Walter Mondale by nearly 18% in the national popular vote. No candidate since 1984 has managed to equal or surpass Reagan's electoral gulf. Perhaps we should repeal “right on red” laws?
I was born in October of 1984 and during that month a Republican controlled Senate under the leadership of George H.W. Bush, Howard Baker, and Strom Thurmond passed legislation allowing federal agencies to experiment with privatized corrections. Later that year the INS struck a deal with CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America, on whose Board of Directors Thurgood Marshall Jr. currently sits.
The relationship between the INS—now Citizenship and Immigration Services—and the CCA is critical to consider because it demonstrates the circuitous pathways between race, citizenship, containment, and profitability. I don’t think it’s particularly coincidental that the INS –a state agency that primarily deals with bodies of color—was the first governmental organization to contract with private prison companies. Testing privatization on the most vulnerable and politically disenfranchised groups allowed the private prison industry to externalize costs without facing “legitimate” public backlash. The message from the U.S. corporate state is crystalline: bodies of color are not, nor have ever been, worthy of taxpayer supported public investment. In the eyes of the U.S. corporate state people are color aren’t part of the “commons,” an omission that renders people of color excludable from public appropriations. Instead, bodies of color continue to be seen almost exclusively as a source of profit extraction. Bodies of color are incarcerated at significantly higher rates in private facilities than in publicly operated institutions.
And the justification for privatizing punishment? Conservatives say that privatization is efficient. This claim is unassailably false. The Arizona Department of Corrections reported in its 2010 “Operating Per Capita Cost Report” that inmates in private prisons can cost as much as $1,600 more per year. And more generally, the privatization of public institutions and programs, a policy that has been pursued aggressively since the early 1980s, is predicated on the assumption that extending the reach of markets will promote economic growth and will cut costs. Again, this claim is unimpeachably false. In 2003 the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization’s issued a report entitled “A Fair Globalization” whose authors found that the primary achievement of the privatization of public assets, institutions, and programs since the early 1980s has been redistributive, not generative. Reagan’s chief justification for the privatization of myriad public sector jobs was, in his words, “to stimulate capital accumulation.” But such rhetoric strays far afield from reality. Throughout the 1960s aggregate global growth rates stood at 3.5% and during the 1970’s they dipped to 2.4%. But from 1980-2003 the world economy has only grown by a rate of 1.25% annually. So privatization didn’t appear very generative, but it did redistribute wealth upward. In late October the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported, for instance, that the real after tax household income of the 1% grew by 265% since 1979, whereas the poorest 20% of households saw their incomes increase by a paltry 18%.
And as the battle over privatization continues, the stakes grow ever higher. Just last month the Riverside, California County Board of Supervisors approved a measure that authorizes charging prisoners $142.42 per day of their prison stay in an effort to save the county up to $5 million dollars per year. The Board’s decision obviously comes amidst a budgetary crisis of unprecedented proportions as the state of California attempts to “privatize” its way out of last year’s $9.6 billion deficit. Geographer David Harvey suggests that during moments of crisis “accumulation by dispossession” is one strategy the state implements to stabilize the economy. Today, “accumulation by dispossession” works by dispossessing citizens of their assets (and rights) through two primary strategies: 1) personal indebtedness (think average student debt loads of $24k / structural readjustment policies on the personal level) and 2) externalizing risk and cost from the corporate state to the citizenry.
The latest example of “externalizing risk” can be seen in Riverside County, California where the Board of Administrators plans to enact a fee-for-service plan for “criminals,” or as the state now conceives of them, “consumers.” Governor Brown claims that pay-to-stay programs will reduce the state’s corrections expenditures and therefore free up additional outlays for public education. But Brown’s comments come at a time when the Regents at the University of California have proposed an 81% tuition hike over the next four years. Meanwhile, California's adult prison population has grown from about 97,000 in 1990 to nearly 161,000 today, while the cost of incarceration during has risen from $20,562 per inmate to $47,101. The corrections department now draws $9.8 billion from the state's general fund, or 11.4% of this year's spending plan. This is more than the state spends on the University of California and California State University systems combined. Over eighteen states, in fact, spend more on corrections than public education.
And Riverside County officials justify their nascent pay-to-stay program by contending that new revenue from inmates could save low to mid-wage county jobs that would otherwise be on the chopping block. But by now we know that this rhetorical strategy is ancient: pit prisoners against the class from which they come. In Punishing the Poor (2009) U.C. Berkeley sociologist Loic Wacquant reports that 60% of those currently incarcerated were at the time of arrest living at or below 50% of the poverty line. And according a recent report issued by the U.S. Census Bureau just two weeks ago nearly 20.5 million Americans, or 7% of the U.S. population, live at or below 50% of the poverty line.
But forcing prisoners to pay for their containment through measures of privatization has never really been about stimulating the economy, has it? At the same time the Obama administration has recommended a dramatic "spending freeze" on any and all projects unrelated to empire building, it has surreptitious increased the federal budget for prison expenditures. President Obama's combined budget requests for fiscal years 2011 and 2012 include a 10% increase in funding for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, bringing the total to more than $6.8 billion. The Left has been pusillanimously silent.
The strategy from the top has been consistent: Divide, conquer, shift costs, and repeat.
And so both prison abolitionists and “Occupy” Wall Street activists must decry the corporate capitalist carceral class that preaches market but practices monopoly (CCA oversees 62% of total number of inmates in private prisons), that privatizes profit while socializing debt. Together, both activist communities must strive to build, in the words of Dr. King, “a person oriented society over a thing oriented society.” We demand a world where prisoners aren’t assumed to be chattel and workers aren’t assumed to be commodities; we demand a world where prisoners aren’t degradable and workers aren’t dispensable.