Drug War Christmas

By Mark Harrison, TNC contributing writer

It's that time of year again. Sleigh bells ringing, chestnuts roasting on an open fire and all that, but sadly, not all the children are singing. Hundreds of thousands of drug war orphans are deprived of having their mothers and fathers home for the holidays this year. The grinch stealing their Christmas is the prison-industrial complex consuming non-violent drug law violators at an unprecedented rate in an insatiable hunger for raw material, the live bodies of imprisoned workers.

In the Chicago Board of Trade way of thinking, prisoners are the 'commodities' for the profitable industry. They are the 'assets' that guarantee a bright and commercialized Christmas for shareholders in publicly offered prison firms such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). They are likewise the markets for manufacturers of prison-ware, and in many prisons captive workers are the makers of prison 'blues' for outside markets.

With no demand to rehabilitate anyone, it seems prisoners are valued least as the mothers and fathers of about 1.5 million children who are home without their parents for the holidays.

The prison-industrial-complex is a huge cash cow for special interests. And like the military-industrial complex which thrives on international conflict and resultant military spending programs, the prison complex can only thrive by putting more people behind bars, justified or not. The military-industrial complex consumes $320 billion per year of public money, more than was spent during the cold war when the USSR was a major nuclear superpower. Today, we have created the largest military in the history of the world, and for what? To defend ourselves against a few 'rogue states'? But without 'rogue' Islamic or Asian countries and 'narcotrafficking banana republics' there would be no justification for awarding colossal military contracts to build an unlimited supply of war machines for endless wars.

Likewise, the flourishing prison industry needs criminals - deserving of the harsh sentence or not - to justify its extravagant spending. In 1970, before the drug war began in earnest, there were less than 200,000 adults behind bars. These numbers were too low for the gluttonous prison-industrial complex and its very conscious and motivated planners. Something had to be done, in a labor market sense, to discipline the excess numbers of young, black, brown and poor, unemployed people.

Drug warriors repeatedly place profits over people, political careers over real leadership, prisons over prevention, and, we're reminded during this normally bright and cheery time of year - drug war spoils over the plight of its consequential prisoners and their dependent children, young and grown alike.
Now, thirty years later and with nearly 500,000 non-violent drug offenders behind bars, and over 2 million people in prison overall, the prison-industrial complex has become self-perpetuating, a government-supported employment program, a spending spree, and those who make the laws may have the most to lose when the system slows down. Politicians receive millions in campaign contributions from companies that make billions from the booming prison industry.

Corrections Corporation of America is the largest privatized prison firm in the country (others are Cornell, Wackenhut, e.g.), and bids competitively for entire state penal contracts to house and control prisoners. Since its founding in 1984, CCA has expanded unabated to 75 facilities in 21 states. According to The Tennesseean newspaper, CCA is the largest political contributor in that state, dropping $100,000 to State legislators for political contributors in anticipation of landing a state-wide penal contract.

Prison-ware is also big business. Festive trade shows for the industry display sundry products from the $3.75 Tranzport Hood - "the fast, easy way to protect you and your fellow officers from the uncomfortable feeling of being spit on." There's also the $2,290 restraint chair, where at least 11 US prisoners have died from suffocation and countless others tortured. So far, efforts to ban or restrict the use of the chair have been thwarted, though Amnesty International has called for an "urgent national inquiry." Meanwhile, sales are brisk, and though manufacturers decline to publicize the exact amount of chairs sold, they number in the thousands.

Tough-on-crime rhetoric that suggests "criminals" deserve what they get may sound fair and just to the uninformed citizen, but looking behind rhetoric about stopping crime, and following the money trail, the drug war is easily seen to be about greed, power and ill-guided intentions. While stockholders paid by the prison-industrial complex will undoubtedly enjoy lavish Christmases with their families, they will be doing so at the expense of drug war prisoners and their children 'celebrating' Christmas apart for another year, perhaps years to come if we don't end this cash cow drug war.

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