The Prison-Industrial Complex, Texas Style

by Henry Farrell on November 9, 2009

“This Boston Review piece”: by Tom Barry is very much worth reading, as a background briefing to the “prison funding shenanigans”: recently described by _Talking Points Memo._

These immigration prisons constitute the new face of imprisonment in America: the speculative public-private prison, publicly owned by local governments, privately operated by corporations, publicly financed by tax-exempt bonds, and located in depressed communities. Because they rely on project revenue instead of tax revenue, these prisons do not need voter approval. Instead they are marketed by prison consultants to municipal and county governments as economic-development tools promising job creation and new revenue without new taxes. The possibility of riots usually goes unmentioned. … Initially, most speculative prisons were privately owned, a case of the federal government outsourcing its responsibilities. But prison outsourcing is rarely that simple anymore. The private-prison industry increasingly works with local governments to establish and operate speculative prisons. Prison-town officials have a mantra: “If you build a prison the prisoners will come.”

Most of the time, these public-private prisons are speculative ventures only for bondholders and local governments, because agreements signed with federal agencies do not guarantee prisoners. For the privates, risks are low and the rewards large. Usually paid a set fee by local governments to operate prisons, management companies have no capital investment and lose little, other than hefty monthly fees, if inmate flows from the federal government decline or stop.

… Prisons are owned by local governments, but local oversight of finances is rare, and the condition of prisoners is often ignored. Inmates such as those in Pecos are technically in the custody of the federal government, but they are in fact in the custody of corporations with little or no federal supervision. So labyrinthine are the contracting and financing arrangements that there are no clear pathways to determine responsibility and accountability. Yet every contract provides an obvious and unimpeded flow of money to the private industry and consultants.

The piece isn’t perfect – it can’t quite decide whether it is a story about the problems of the prison system or about the problems of the US approach to immigration. The two are of course closely connected, but each is very complicated in its own right, and trying to explain both at once makes for a top-heavy account. I would also have liked to have seen more aggregate data to support the specific arguments that the author is making (I suspect though that one of the problems with keeping this metastasizing system under control is that there isn’t any source of good general data out there). But it is an eye-opening piece of investigative journalism, looking at a story that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves. Recommended.

Il Divo

by Chris Bertram on November 9, 2009

I watched Paolo Sorrentino’s quite extraordinary film Il Divo last night. It is remarkable in so many ways, but especially, as a portrait of evil in the form for Giulo Andreotti (as depicted by Toni Servillo) and also, in terms of the most marvelous cinematography. In a recent post I attracted hostility from some by doubting the West’s commitment to individual rights. No doubt I overgeneralized a little, but post-war Italy would be a part of any case for the prosecution. Andreotti as portrayed in the film, is prepared to go to almost any lengths, to inflict evil in pursuit of what he takes to be the good, to deal with the Mafia, to sacrifice his colleagues (I’d say his friends, but it isn’t clear that he had any). I wonder if it isn’t possible that Italy between some date in the 1970s and the fall of the Berlin Wall, wasn’t the European state where a person was most likely to be the victim of political murder? (Actually, I’m guessing that Romania might take that prize.) Not to be missed.