Prison Growth Out of Control
PRISON SYSTEM GROWS FAT FROM FEAR AND GREED
by Eugene Kane, Milwaukee Journal SentinelFrom time to time, I will get a call or a letter from someone behind bars.
My first assumption is to expect the plea of an innocent man done wrong, tales of judicial corruption or complaints about an incompetent attorney.
Surprisingly, many of the inmates who call or write these days don't want to profess their innocence as much as they want to complain about conditions inside what has come to be described as "the prison industrial complex."
They complain about the high price of phone calls to loved ones. Or, they complain about conditions inside a so-called minimum security facility. Or, about being sent outside Wisconsin to a prison in Texas, far away from their family.
These letters from inmates usually don't make for great news stories; most of us have been raised to think if someone's behind bars, they probably deserve it.
Of course, if you are African-American or Latino behind bars for a non-violent offense, you might think differently.
For example, although most experts believe black and white men use illegal drugs at about the same rate, a black man is five times as likely to be arrested for a drug offense.
For lesser offenses too, a black or brown face carries a much greater chance of conviction. Because of that fact, many see the prison system as the very personification of institutional racism.
No wonder it is distressing for some to note -- even with violent crime decreasing nationwide -- that building more prisons has never been more popular.
The December issue of The Atlantic Monthly magazine described the prison industrial complex as "a confluence of special interests that has given prison construction in the United States a seemingly unstoppable momentum."
Some of those special interests include politicians -- conservative and liberal -- who use fear of crime to gain votes; rural communities seeking to use prisons as an economic boon; and private companies that see prisons as a lucrative market.
This speaks particularly well to our situation in Wisconsin, where Gov. Tommy Thompson has based his political fortunes on building more prisons while cutting welfare for the poorest citizens.
Doreatha Mbalia, chairwoman of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Department of Africology, took a look at the difference in money spent for prisons and education in Wisconsin for a recent community forum on the criminal justice system.
She came away shocked at the disparity. The state of Wisconsin spends $241 million to incarcerate minorities, compared with $81.3 million in funding grants earmarked for minority students, according to her findings.
Mbalia said that disparity was evidence of misplaced priorities.
"It is very significant," she said. "Those statistics (on education) are what jumped out at me. Somehow, we have to rectify the money spent on education versus prisons."
One disastrous result of the disparity is that in some neighborhoods young people come to view prison as a rite of passage instead of college.
"Isn't it something, when some youth coming out of prison can get a reputation for being cool, the idea that if you've served time, you're something special?" asked Mbalia.
Or, just as disturbing to me, a news story a few months ago: in Milwaukee some young people were buying orange jumpsuits, similar to the ones issued inmates at Milwaukee County Jail, to wear as fashion statements.
When jailhouse clothing becomes a fashion statement, that's a sure sign the prison industrial complex is one business ready to explode through the roof.
It is a beast that demands to be fed.
This article appears at The Progress Report with the author's permission. You can contact Eugene Kane of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at email@example.com
Do you have an opinion on this? Tell The Progress Report:
Page One Page Two Archive Discussion Room Letters What's Geoism?