01/29/08 - Paul Wright

Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News discusses "Prison Profiteers - Who Makes Money From Mass Incarceration" the new book he co-edited.

Program: 
Century of Lies
Date: 
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Guest: 
Paul Wright
Organization: 
Prison Legal News
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Century of Lies, Jan 29, 2008

The failure of Drug War is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors and millions more now calling for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century of Lies.

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Dean Becker: Hello my friends. Welcome to this edition of Century of Lies. I’m so glad you could be with us. There’s much that we need to do, working together, and you have to understand that this prison-industrial complex is a monster. It’s out of control and you need to understand what’s going on and perhaps then be motivated enough to help bring it to an end.

In that regard we have with us today Mr. Paul Wright, coeditor of a brand new book, “Prison Profiteers: Who Make Money From Mass Incarceration.” He’s also editor of Prison Legal News and I think he’s online now.

Paul Wright: Hi Dean, thank you very much for having me on your show.

Dean Becker: Glad to have you with us. Yes Sir. I’ve been impressed over the years with your writings that I’ve seen from Prison Legal News. This book just knocked me out of the water. I mean, I know a lot about this problem but its just more amazing and outlandish than I’d ever perceived. Tell us a bit about this book, please.

Paul Wright: Basically it started out with the premise for “Prison Profiteers” that pretty much most of the books that are on the market including my previous two books, “The Selling of America: an Inside Look at the U.S. Prison Industry” and “Prison Nation: the Warehousing of America’s Poor” had done which we examine mass imprisonment and we look at who’s being harmed by the policies and practice of locking up 2.3 million Americans.

We’ve looked at the rapes, we’ve looked at the beatings, we’ve looked at the killings, we’ve looked at the unjust sentencing practices and its pretty easy to lay out who’s being harmed by it. But then the flip-side of a question like this, though, and what we found, what I thought was kind of important and that no one had really looked at is, if all these people are being harmed by these policies, and it’s not just the 2.3 million prisoners but also their families, their loved ones, their kids and stuff like that, who’s benefitting from it?

And I think that’s, that was kind of the starting point for, that was...the starting point for “Prison Profiteers” is, you know, we’re going to start with the prospect here of the people who are benefitting from it and, there was a report that came out a while back, the Bureau of Justice Statistics issues reports periodically and one of the ones is how much money is being spent on the prison and jail system and, I think, for 2004/2005, the most recent year they have statistics for, we’re talking $80 billion that’s being spent to lock up 2.3 million people and, so the question is whose pockets are those $80 billion going in to?

And that’s what we looked at in “Prison Profiteers”...is who’s profiting from, who’s benefitting from mass incarceration?

Dean Becker: Well, you not only edited this, you also contributed to it. I want to read just a sentence from your contribution here: “When is for the purpose of social control, to get the weak and poor into line, prison is the dark, barred world of brutal, sweaty, muscled tattooed men, a world of sodomy, stabbings and razor wire, a world conjured up when the interrogating cop whispers to the young suspect ‘you know what they do to young boys like you in the penitentiary, don’t you?’”

That’s a dark side of this but it goes well beyond that to the way medical treatment is denied or delayed until it’s just too late. We have the infrastructure, the financing of the State and federal government is more suspect than ever before. They’re even charging the prisoners for their keep these days, right?

Paul Wright: Yes, that’s exactly one of the things is that you’ve got a lot of companies that are being charged for providing medical care for prisoners, who are actually running the prisons and everything else. And that’s some of the stuff that, that’s some of the stuff that we’re covering in “Prison Profiteers.”

One of the things that’s more, in some respects is even more important is the fact that on the one hand you’ve got the companies that are charging and making a lot of money from mass imprisonment and everything else, the other thing that’s of even more significance and which we cover in “Prison Profiteers” in a chapter by Judy Green is the fact that you’ve got companies like Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Corporation which formerly was known as Wackenhut Corrections and that, not only are they, not only are they profiting from it but also more significantly, whenever State legislatures are seriously considering any type of sentencing reform that would reduce the number of people in prison, they actively lobby, they give tens of thousands of dollars to governors, to legislators and politicians to basically kill sentencing reform and this especially is true of drug sentencing reform, to ensure that there is no change in the status quo, to make sure that people are still being locked up and that’s the key thing is that you’ve got a lot of players now that have very strong economic vested interests in insuring that the United States continues the policy and practice of mass incarceration, and that’s some of the stuff that, yeah, most people don’t know about it.

Dean Becker: Well, as you say there are these contributions to the elected officials to maintain the status quo, they even manipulate bond sales and force counties to take a step towards private prisons and so forth, trying to lure people to just step into their trap, are they not?

Paul Wright: I’m not sure to what extent the private companies are necessarily luring anyone to step into their trap. I think it’s more along the lines of, you know, a lot of government officials at the county level and these other places have, a lot of these places, basically what they’ve done is they make the policy decision to try to make money off of mass imprisonment and sometimes it doesn’t always turn out that way, like some of the stuff we discuss, some of the examples we give are these counties in Texas and Arizona, especially along the border where you’ve got these pretty small, impoverished rural counties and they make the decision to build these massive jail complexes which is far beyond whatever they might legitimately need to incarcerate their own local population, basically the whole thing is they overbuild, they overbuild these facilities and the whole purpose of this is so that they can rent out the excess space to the federal government or other jurisdictions, and typically to the federal government to the U.S. Marshall Service to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other agencies.

And they see this as a means of generating income that otherwise they wouldn’t be able to. And, I guess, this also gets us to the whole, beyond the economic soundness of such policies and as we demonstrate it doesn’t always turn out so great for these counties, beyond that is also the kind of moral question of should local governments be in the business of profiting from mass imprisonment and there’s certainly a lot of companies that are and that’s another question is, should the incarceration of people be reserved as a government function or should it be farmed out to the lowest bidder?

Dean Becker: It’s just a morass of, I don’t know, financial will I suppose. Now, there is the other situation that people want these prisons in their county because it helps them, helps them get tax dollars. Let’s talk about that aspect of their desire to maintain this scenario.

Paul Wright: We’ve got a chapter on that in “Prison Profiteers” and its by Clayton Mosher and some other professors at the University of Washington in Vancouver, Washington and some of the things they examine is exactly that, the article is called, not surprisingly, ‘Don’t Believe the Hype,’ and they look at kind of the myths and the reality of rural prison building.

And basically, you’ve got a lot of, you’ve got a lot of politicians who have gone on with this thing about, well, your community is dying, there’s no jobs there, we’ll build a prison there, this will act as an economic stimulus, so basically they’re talking about using prisons as tools of economic development.

And it’s, what we’ve been doing this for at least around twenty, twenty-five years now and what’s interesting is what, what we looked at in “Prison Profiteers” is the fact that if you look at the communities that have used prisons as tools of economic development versus other places and the results aren’t that great, basically, I think we’re seeing this in Texas, in California, in a couple of other places where they built these prisons in rural areas and basically they can’t find the staff, basically no one wants to live in West Texas to work in a prison.

Same thing in California, they build prisons in these remote areas of the high desert mountains and places like that and, well, they can’t find people to work there. And that’s kind of one side of it that’s bad and the other side is that, then, once you have prisons built in places, it’s like, well, maybe we shouldn’t be locking up so many people and we can reduce our imprisonment rate and stuff like that, then you wind up with trying to close down a prison and its like ‘hey you can’t close down this prison.

We’ve got people who depend on this for jobs.’ And that’s one of the things, in some respects prisons are almost like the Maginot Line of American domestic policy is that basically once you’re sinking billions of dollars into the ground building these things it’s pretty much impossible to shut them down.

And the interesting thing is that the places where they are being shut down are places like West Texas and stuff like that is because they can’t find the people to staff them. And, in some respects, the whole thing about using rural prisons as an economic development tool hasn’t really panned out.

In some places maybe it has, other places, though, it’s basically, these are pretty troubled communities and just building a prison in the middle of nowhere isn’t enough to basically save them.

Dean Becker: It’s again, symptomatic of just the bass-ackwards stance taken in all of this, and another one is, we talk about $80 billion a year for the prison housing and staffing and all of that but it’s an enormous amount, whatever it is, but what people don’t realize is the economic impact, say, in their neighborhood. There’s a chapter in here ‘The Million Dollar Blocks: The Neighborhood Costs of America’s Prison Boom.’ Let’s talk about that.

Paul Wright: Well, you know what’s fascinating is the fact that, well I guess this is almost the flip-side of the rural prison building thing, is basically in the last twenty-five or thirty years the bulk of the thousand-plus prisons that have been built in this country have all been built primarily in rural areas as a tool of economic development but the flip-side is that most of the prisoners don’t come from those rural areas, they typically come from, almost every state it’s the same pattern, is that sixty, seventy, eighty percent of the prison population will come from 3 to maybe 4 or 5 urban areas in a State, which isn’t surprising, you think about the cities, the cities are where people live.

For example, in Washington State the counties where Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett are located in generate probably sixty or seventy percent of the State’s prisoners, yet by the same token virtually all the prisons have been built in rural communities, in those, King County, the largest which has Seattle and which contributes the largest percentage of prisoners doesn’t even have a state prison in its county.

Pierce County, where Tacoma is, has one. Everett where Snohomish County, where, which has one prison are kind of almost the exception. But all this this, new prisons have been built, are built in these rural communities are far from where these prisoners come from.

They’re far away from their families, they’re far away from their support networks and yeah, you see this in New York City, for example, in New York State. They generate a huge number of, it generates probably seventy percent of the prisoners in New York State prison system come from the five boroughs of Manhattan.

And it all ships upstate to the prisons in rural upstate New York and what Jennifer Gonnerman looks at in her chapter on million dollar blocks is, you start looking at where the prisoners are coming from, what’s really neat is that we’ve got these maps that show in graphic detail, it shows how the people are being taken out of urban neighborhoods, in Brooklyn, the Bronx, places like that and they’re being sent to prisons in upstate New York.

And the term ‘million dollar blocks’ came from the fact that once you reach a certain tipping point of around 200 people per city block, and you’re spending around, at least $25 to $30 thousand a year to lock them up, at one point, sooner or later you’re hitting the point of the million dollar block. And you can look at these maps, and what they do is they show you, OK, these are the places that are generating the prisoners and then it, not surprisingly, these are also the places, the highest concentrations of poverty which in turn leads to high rates of crime.

And, yeah, this kind of, I think this really puts the policy question up front is instead of relying on, kind of, prisons as a tool of economic development for poor rural white communities, you know maybe if we had some type of economic development in urban areas we wouldn’t have the crime rate we do that creates prisoners that then in turn creates prisons as economic development tools later on down the line.

And that’s some of the stuff that we’re looking at with Jennifer Gonnerman’s book and this is something that’s pretty much almost in every State unless you live in a really rural state that doesn’t have any big cities but if you live in any State with any type of sizable metropolitan population like New York, Connecticut, Florida, Texas, California, Washington...any of those States the million-dollar block thing pretty much applies.

Dean Becker: Once again, we’re speaking with Mr. Paul Wright, coeditor of a brand new book “Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money From Mass Incarceration?” Paul’s also editor of Prison Legal News and we are talking about the impact of this prison-industrial complex on our nation.

Paul, I saw a video one time, I think it was in Brazoria Country, where the guards were going through the facility looking for tobacco and other contraband and they had everybody strip naked and crawl some dozens of yards across the floor on their bellies...

Paul Wright: I’ve seen that video too, Dean, in fact I’ve got the video.

Dean Becker: Yes, and it’s just, it shows the lack of concern, or the differentiation that the guards are superior and somehow these people are animals, to be treated in such a fashion. You have several chapters in here dealing with that mind-set, if you will, but your years working for Prison Legal News have given you more insight than most people in America and let’s talk about the abuses.

What goes on? There’s a chapter in here, ‘The Riot Academy: Guards Stage Mock Prison Riots to Test the Latest High Tech Gear.” Let’s just talk about that aspect please.

Paul Wright: Well, you know, it’s kind of interesting, is that I actually tried to stay away from the abuse stuff in this book because I already covered it in the previous two books I did, “Prison Nation” and “The Selling of America” but it’s kind of almost hard, it’s pretty hard to do just because its such an inherent way of how American prisons and jails operate.

Basically they operate on the level of physical force and violence and brutality and that’s pretty much the way they’re, and have been run for probably a couple of centuries and it’s been dressed up a little bit now in last couple decades but I think that’s still the core function.

The thing about ‘The Riot Academy” is that this is kind of what I’m talking about as far as the whole book goes, as far as who’s making money from mass imprisonment and ‘The Riot Academy’ was set up, it’s actually a Jesuit School in West Virginia that kind of found themselves stuck with declining enrollment, they aren’t making as much money as they were before, they don’t have as many students so one of the faculty comes up with a brilliant idea, ‘Hey, we can market this as a training center for prisons around the country to train them in basically brutality and the use of force’ and so that’s exactly what they did.

And so now this university here, it’s set up so that literally people can come here and learn how to, the most effective and efficient ways of using force and brutality to suppress prisoners and that’s what they do and this college, literally they’re now making, you know whereas before they started doing this they were kind of financially struggling and everything else, now this is like a raging success for them.

They’re making a lot of money, they’re hiring more staff and faculty and everything else and prisons around the country are paying tax-payer dollars to send their prison guard staff there to learn this stuff. And they’ve got competitions and that’s one of the things that we’ve got, that Jennifer Gonnerman in her chapter describes in the book here, is how you’ve got the, how you’ve got the prison guards from around the country coming there, they stage competitions and, of course, they take turns playing who’s going to be the prisoner and who’s going to be the guard and stuff like that and this is one of the things about, and typically when people think about mass incarceration, the so-called prison-industrial complex and stuff like that.

They aren’t really thinking about, you know, they’re thinking more about who’s building prisons, who’s operating them, the private prison companies, they’re aren’t thinking about Jesuit universities in West Virginia. And that’s what we try to do with “Prison Profiteers” is we try to kind of, you know, we want to open up the way people think about prisons and mass imprisonment, that it’s not just the prisoners that are being beat down, that are being tasered and pepper-sprayed and abused but more significantly, who’s benefitting from it?

And the thing is, you think about a bunch of Jesuit priests running a university, you don’t really think of them profiting off of the misery of millions of prisoners, but they are. And that’s just one of the components of it.

Dean Becker: Let’s go back to the medical staffing, the medical capabilities of these prisons. There’s a chapter here, ‘Private Health Care in Jails can be a Death Sentence’, there was one gentleman was it, who, well, many people with AIDS have major problems, I forget, this gentleman had multiple sclerosis or something in the beginning of the chapter, that...

Paul Wright: Is that the one Wil Hylton spoke to the guy that had, actually I think he had hepatitis, and he has, rather hepatitis or a hernia?

Dean Becker: Oh God, yes, the gentleman with the hernia. Let’s tell his story. What happened to him?

Paul Wright: Well, basically what a lot of states have done is, prisoners are the only segment of the American population that are constitutionally entitled to medical care. So, prisons and jails have to provide medical care.

Now, then the question comes down to the amount of medical care that’s legally required and, then there’s the type that’s probably ethically and medically required and then the bottom line is ‘how much medical care are tax-payers and the government willing to pay for?’ and that last one kind of falls way below the first two.

And so what a lot of states have done is there’s a couple of private for-profit companies and we only cover two of them in our book “Prison Profiteers” and it’s the biggest one, between them they control, as they put it, eighty percent of the market share of privatized prison and jail health care, and that’s Prison Health Services and Correctional Medical Services.

And what State’s can do is basically, instead of them having to worry about their medical, about providing the medical care is they pay these companies a set amount, a set per diem amount per prisoner for the medical care and so the companies, their selling point is ‘Look, you pay us the money.

We’ll handle everything else as far as the medical care’ and the whole thing, understand, is the way their contracts operate is they get, they get paid a flat amount and then at that point any medical care that they don’t provide boosts their profit line.

So it’s quite the perverse incentive so it’s basically the less care they provide the more money they make and that’s what they do. And what we document in one article on Prison Health Services, is by Paul Von Zielbauer, he just looks at their track record in New York State, the other one by Wil Hylton looks at Correctional Medical Services in a variety of States, and basically they’ve got a consistent track record of murder, mayhem and neglect of, you know, basically killing people through inadequate medical care and, or making people suffer needlessly.

One of the best ones is of course, how much time do you have left on your sentence and if we deny medical care there’s a good chance that, hey, at least you’ll live and we don’t have to spend any money on you and you’ll get out and then it’s not our problem, which then generally means that it’s the tax-payers’ problem.

Dean Becker: It’s just horrendous, Paul. Once again we’re speaking with Mr. Paul Wright, co-editor of a brand new book “Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration.” Now, Paul, we got just about a minute left but I wanted to touch on, you know, women are becoming a larger segment of those imprisoned across this country...

Paul Wright: Absolutely.

Dean Becker: And they suffer horrendously, especially those who are pregnant. One story in the book about a lady having to give birth in a toilet and the child subsequently dying. Let’s talk about how this is now reaching into the women’s side of this problem.

Paul Wright: Well, basically the number of women in prison is, remains around 5 or 6 percent of the total, I mean, prisons are still a predominately male institution and that’s the, I guess from a woman’s perspective that’s the good news and the bad news. The good news is women aren’t being swept up in the prison dramatic numbers, it’s around 100,000 women out of 2.3 million people locked up.

The bad news though is that for the 100,000 women, which is growing every year, that are put in prison, is basically they find themselves in institutions that were designed and are maintained with the idea of men in mind and their needs, which are, shocking as this may be to apparently a lot of lawmakers and prison officials, is their needs are different from those of men.

In other words, they have needs for ob/gyn care, they in most cases, something like eighty percent of women prisoners are, have children and they were the primary caretaker of their child before arrest and stuff like that and the whole prison system is pretty indifferent to those very significant differences.

And in some cases, as you noticed, as you note, like the example we give in the book, women giving, one prisoner trying to give birth over a toilet and the baby dying, the lack of prenatal care can be fatal and have disastrous consequences, beyond that, though, is there’s a lot of other impacts that won’t be felt for a long time. One of them is of course, you know, depriving children of contact with their mothers and that goes down to the whole thing of the rural, the rural prison building.

And then, the case of women prisoners it’s worse because most states only have one, maybe two, prisons for women, so, and they tend to be located in isolated rural areas and that results in even further isolation than even male prisoners are subjected to. One of the huge issues that we don’t touch on in this book because

I touched on in my previous book, “Prison Nation,” is the sexual assault of women prisoners and unfortunately that’s a huge issue all over the country, in all fifty States, is you have a lot of male staff employed in prisons who seem to think that sexually assaulting the women prisoners in their care is a job perk. And there’s been some progress as far as laws criminalizing sexual contact between prisoners and staff but they’re not enforced very vigorously.

Dean Becker: Well, Paul, I want to thank you for being with us. I highly recommend this book. If you want to learn the truth, if you want to see the ugly glaring truth of this prison-industrial complex please pick up a copy of “Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration.” Paul, real quick, give them your website.

Paul Wright: Our website is www.prisonlegalnews.org and people can order “Prison Profiteers” as well as the other books in the PLN anthology series and other great books on the criminal justice system from our website at www.prisonlegalnews.org.

Dean Becker: Thank you Paul.

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Dean Becker: Let us celebrate day 32,809 of being led to salvation by our dear Drug Czars.

(medieval dance music)

Tens of millions of witches arrested,
Thousand have died from our black market drugs,
Orphans of prisoners will be our next harvest,
In the name of God we will ever march on.

Monsters and demons using powders and potions,
Must be stopped, no matter the cost,
Kneel down and pray for the New Inquisition,
Pray for success of the new Dark Age.

All this in the name of God.

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Dean Becker: Yeah, this prison-industrial complex is really something to be proud of. You know that scene of the folks in Brazoria County crawling across the floor naked, I saw a very similar scene going on in the Abu Ghraib prison. Very similar. It’s not something that we need to be proud of, our treatment of our fellow man as an animal and that’s what we have done with this prison-industrial complex. It’s really up to you to help bring this thing to an end, it’s up to you to educate yourself and to do something to bring it to an end. It’s up to you, it really is. You have to help bring this to an end, and always I remind you there’s no truth, justice, logic, scientific fact, medical data, no reason for this drug war to exist. We’ve been duped. The drug lords run both sides of this equation. Do your part to help end this madness.

Prohibido istac evilesco.

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Dean Becker asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition.

The Century of Lies.

This show produced at the Pacifica studios of KPFT, Houston.

Our engineer is Philip Guffy.

Transcript provided by Gee-Whiz Transcripts. Email: glenncg@zoominternet.net