Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Prison-Industrial Complex and Hate Crime Legislation

Generally I'm very critical of the prison-industrial complex. The number of issues surrounding our penal system defies a single blog post. But the cynical profiteering involved, and the influence this has on our drug legislation, sentencing policies, method of inmate discipline, ways of exploiting the families of inmates, etc. seem like the biggest issues to me. And the fact that we incarcerate a larger proportion of our population than any other country (think about that for a minute) is a huge, huge issue that merits a lot of attention and concern. And don't even get me started on the racism and classism involved, or the long-term disenfranchisement of those who have been incarcerated.

On the other hand, I tend to support hate crime legislation. Because it's clear to me that some members of our society are more vulnerable to victimization precisely because of who they are and how our culture values them. And these marginalized groups often have less access to legal help and a supportive social network, and are less likely to be protected by our deeply flawed system of justice. So supporting hate crime legislation seems like a no-brainer to me.

However, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project's stance on the GENDA bill in New York has gotten me thinking about this. On the face of it, it does seem deeply inconsistent to oppose our increasing incarceration rate while also supporting legislation that would impose harsher sentences for certain crimes. And this is compounded by the fact that, generally speaking, any bill that involves tougher sentencing is supported financially by prison industry lobby groups. If you follow the money, almost every piece of legislation requiring stricter sentencing, and almost every politician who takes a strong anti-crime stance is backed by prison industry dollars. And that is something to take very seriously. But does it trump the good reasons for supporting hate crime legislation? I don't think so.

For one thing, violent crimes account for only 4.6% of arrests in the U.S.,* and of those, only 20% of the victims are hurt badly enough to need medical treatment. So clearly the problem of high incarceration rates is not connected to violent crimes, but has much more to do with the misguided and ineffective war on drugs. Since hate crimes would fall into the category of violent crimes, they don't seem to be a major contributor to the whole cycle of increased incarceration rates that is required to fuel the prison-industrial complex.

On the other hand, the fact that crimes are disproportionately policed, prosecuted, and differentially sentenced based on race and class is an issue in this case. But I'm not convinced that abstaining from enacting hate crime laws will have any impact on this. Instead, it seems like there's a lot of work that needs to be done at the systemic level in law enforcement and the justice system to bring about real change in this area. Add to that the fact that in many parts of the country we already have hate crime laws in effect that cover race and sexual orientation but not gender identity, and it's clear that it would be unhelpful and exclusionary to oppose hate crime legislation that protects people who are targeted on the basis of their gender presentation. The problems surrounding the prison-industrial complex are serious issues that deserve a lot of attention and advocacy to bring about profound change. But opposing hate crime legislation is not the way to do this.

*Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2002. Table 4.8.


  1. Anonymous7/03/2009

    "If you follow the money," might be followed by a hyperlink to the information you're encouraging people to know more about. Is there a website somewhere with these links made clear in B&W? I'd like to know more.


    Even if one does not ask or pretends not to see the rope and the flashing red flag draped around the philosophical question standing solemnly at attention in the middle of the room, it remains apparent that the mere presence of a private “for profit” driven prison business in our country undermines the U.S Constitution and subsequently the credibility of the American criminal justice system. In fact, until all private prisons in America have been abolished and outlawed, “the promise” of fairness and justice at every level of this country’s judicial system will remain unattainable. We must restore the principles and the vacant promise of our judicial system. Our government cannot continue to "job-out" its obligation and neglect its duty to the individuals confined in the correctional and rehabilitation facilities throughout this nation, nor can it ignore the will of the people that it was designed to serve and protect. There is urgent need for the good people of this country to emerge from the shadows of indifference, apathy, cynicism, fear, and those other dark places that we migrate to when we are overwhelmed by frustration and the loss of hope.

    My hope is that you will support the National Public Service Council to Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP) with a show of solidarity by signing "The Single Voice Petition"

    Please visit our website for further information:

    –Ahma Daeus
    "Practicing Humanity Without A License"...

  3. Anonymous,

    Here are a few links:
    Merchandising Prisoners
    Critical Resistance report broken down by state.

    This last one is really great and takes a detailed look of how much each prison vendor contributed to campaigns, who they gave it to, and how these people voted on relevant bills.

  4. Lyndsay7/04/2009

    Questions: Where do private prisons get their money? From the government? How do private prisons exist? Are they in other countries as well?
    I'm Canadian and I've never heard of private prisons up here.

  5. Lyndsay,

    Private prisons contract with the gov't to house prisoners, and they get paid a basic flat rate for each inmate. To maximize their profits they generally provide minimal services, buy the cheapest and worst food, provide horrible medical care that is driven solely by the goal of reducing costs so that many serious conditions go untreated, etc. In other words, when prisons become a business, the human rights of those incarcerated go out the window, as the driving motivation is profit. Additionallly, private prison companies spend lots and lots of money lobbying for tougher crime legislation, support the war on drugs, which provides them with the majority of their "revenue streams," and impose harsh disciplinary measures of increased time added onto an inmate's sentence for every violation, big or small. This last one is a huge issue, since time added onto an existing sentence is the most common form of discipline, but the very people who are meting out this punishment (guards, prison administrators) are the ones who stand to gain from an increased prison population, as their job security depends on it.

    More info:
    Private Prisons: Profits of Crime