Supermaxes

The Washington Post reported Oct. 3, 2000, that people locked up in a supermax prison in Virginia were complaining of excessive force, including the use of guns, stun guns, and restraints. But why are such things “excessive”? If you are going to lock people in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and treat them as worthless, it is unavoidable that they are going to lose their minds and attack you and pelt you with feces and urine. This experiment of isolating people was run nearly 200 years ago in this country and it failed miserably. The advantage of knowing this is that when we repeat the mistake we can now predict what will go wrong and appropriately compound the disaster with the use of weapons that – under the circumstances – can hardly be called excessive.

For an excellent account of how guards treat prisoners, including a little on what techniques bring out the worst in them, read “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing,” by Ted Conover, a reporter who became a prison guard in order to get inside.

As Conover points out, we are building prisons for private profit that will only be needed if we can manage to lead a great many people who are now children to commit or at least be convicted of crimes. We all know it would cost less to build them schools and recreation facilities and places to work, and to guarantee workers a living wage. Yet we choose to spend more money in order to have a lot more suffering for crime victims, imprisonment for prisoners, imprisoning for guards, and then new crime victims. Why?

There is a presidential candidate who sees the problem: Ralph Nader. Nader calls for corporations, such as the Corrections Corporation of America-the largest multinational prison corporation operating in the United States-to get out of the prison industry; human dignity should come before profits. Corporations wrongfully exploit prisoners, who are disproportionately people of color. Prisoners are used as cheap labor to increase corporate profits. He believes that public policy should be aimed at reducing the incarceration rate through treatment and rehabilitation-not locking people up by the masses.

Bush and Gore both encourage the growth of the corporate prison industry. Both have accepted more than $100,000 in soft money that corporations running for-profit prisons have given to both the DNC and RNC. The corporate-prison industry has grown tremendously under the eight years of the Clinton administration, particularly in George W. Bush’s state of Texas.

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