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OpEdge: Trump’s Policies and the Private Prison System
by Marc Jampole
THE BODY COUNT is getting higher: Add 200,000 Salvadorans to 780,000 dreamers and 45,000 Haitians. That’s well over a million people now, mostly productive and hard-working, ripped out of our economy and communities. These are many of the people who make our hotel beds, fix our pipes, take care of our elderly, slaughter our chickens, pick our crops, deliver our groceries, and build our roads and housing. We can expect labor shortages in all these and other industries.
Don’t expect people postponing retirement to fill the gap — the ones who work past 62 are mostly professionals in desk jobs. You might see a senior staffing a cash register at Walmart or flipping burgers at MacDonald’s, but baby boomers’ expansive waists, bad knees, sore rotator cuffs, aching hips, and general arthritis will rule out plucking oranges from trees, walking patients around hospital wards, making deliveries, or operating a jack hammer. As with most of their policies, the Trump GOP’s deportation of more than a million productive Americans goes counter to the best interest of the country. We need to address global warming; he walks away from the Paris Accord. We need to raise taxes on the wealthy; they lower them. We need more workers or face a labor shortage; he kicks out millions.
Add to the more than a million refugees and other immigrants Trump intends to kick out of the country by 2020 a yet unknown number — the additional number of people who will be thrown in jail as a result of the Justice Department’s new crackdown on marijuana. Will it be 10,000? 20,000? 50,000? However many, they won’t be leading productive lives contributing to the economy.
On the surface, what unites deporting dreamers and refugees with ratcheting up arrests for something that should be legal — and is in many states — are the sheer stupidity of the actions, the mean-spirited cruelty underlying both policies, and the deleterious effect each will likely have on the American economy and on many individuals.
A FOLLOW-THE-MONEY analysis uncovers another connection between these two deplorable stupidities: Both will line the pockets of the operators of for-profit prisons. The way back to which ever country someone or their parents started usually runs through a detention center, so virtually every dreamer or refugee kicked out of the U.S. will spend some time under lock and key . And every stoner or pot entrepreneur busted will end up detained, sometimes for years.
What a boon to for-profit prisons, which the Obama Administration had begun to phase out. The incarceration industry and its investors have been riding high since Trump announced that he was rescinding the Obama decision and relying even more heavily on private prisons. Instead of facing a contraction of business, private prisons are looking at boom times.
As usual, Trump gets it wrong. By almost every measure, private prisons have been a disaster: prisoners are more likely to be mistreated and often don’t get enough to eat or adequate medical care; drug use and violence are greater in private prisons. Often the private solution ends up being more expensive. It has never produced a greater rate of rehabilitation.
Besides being a disaster, private prisons also have a distorting effect on our politics and criminal justice system. Private prisons make money only if they are filled with prisoners, and so their operators have long lobbied for three-strikes-you’re-out and other harsh sentencing laws. They have contributed to the campaigns of many law-and-order candidates, primarily Republicans and including Jeff Sessions and now Trumpty-Dumpty.
“Crony capitalism” means giving large government contracts to your friends and financial supporters. It’s been around since the Revolutionary War and served as one of the primary sources of ultra-wealth during the Civil War and the Gilded Age. Private prisons are the quintessential “crony capitalists,” an industry that emerged only from a desire to privatize and thereby create more opportunity to use government revenues to create profit for private individuals at the expense of taxpayers. Government is the sole market for their services. It is in their best interest to increase their market by increasing the number of people detained and incarcerated. In an era of rapidly falling crime, that means increasing what is considered a crime and expanding the jail time demanded of the perpetrators. Criminalizing both immigrants and pot smokers fill the bill quite nicely.
The Trump Administration operates primarily on hate, fear and crony capitalism. We can see all three motives coming together in granting the wishes of another large industry dependent on government largess.
Marc Jampole, a member of our editorial board, is a poet and writer and retired public relations executive. He launched this column, “Left Is Right,” with a piece on immigration. Marc’s new poetry flip book, Cubist States of Mind/Not the Cruelest Month, is available at our Pushcart.