Throughout our own country’s relatively short history, we’ve had a strange relationship with two concepts that never should have met and fallen in love: punishment and capitalism. We love both of them. We’re head-over-heels into them. We don’t just like them, we “like them, like them.” Capitalism has never been anywhere near anything close to a free market. It’s just not possible. The world is too big and too complicated for there to ever be such a thing as a free market. Even the most libertarian-leaning Righty think tanker knows this. You’ve got a better chance at crossbreeding a falcon, an elephant and a standard poodle and flying to work on a giant foodle than you do of ever seeing a true free market economy. The idea is noble--allowing people to compete on a theoretically equal playing field and letting consumers pick the best product. It doesn’t exist in what we like to call reality, but neither does Hogwarts and that hasn’t stopped me from applying for a Muggle scholarship.
We also love punishment. Half of our TV shows are about punishment from some angle or another. Police drama shows have been a staple of American TV for generations. We even have a shocking number of cameramen in our prisons recording the day-to-day goings-on of our punished class. Late night MSNBC, the supposed “liberal news channel,” after their regularly scheduled programming, has hours of soap opera-like footage shot in US prisons. We love punishment. We used to have public hangings where fathers would bring their sons and use the opportunity as a valuable teaching moment. That’s no more “civilized” than Inquisition-era heretic torturing. We don’t do it right out there in the open and nude anymore, but it’s not as if it’s really hidden all that well. It’s hide-and-go-seek where you hide behind the couch, as if no one’s going to look behind the couch. We still let the state kill people, occasionally even if they’re retarded or thirteen. And we’re basically OK with that. “Hang ‘em high” is a much more popular slogan than, “Let’s have a reasonable discussion about how we might be able to prevent this in the future,” and not only because it’s a little catchier.
People have come up with so many different ways to maim and hurt each other over the years, often in the self-delusional name of justice, that I simply don’t have the column inches to report them all. The posse is a pretty good American idea. Somebody attacks your village, you find some friends, preferably dress in matching outfits, and go get them. Makes sense, right? The posse idea, even in the present age where vigilante justice is frowned upon in real life and wildly celebrated in comic books, even after we’ve seen the horrific tangents of vigilantism, is still something we like a lot. We haven’t really learned that lesson. Some Western posses had decent motives. Some didn’t. And, honestly, what was the Klan if not vigilante hatred possified? We still love John Wayne movies. Nowadays, since we’re a less overtly racist nation, we celebrate the non-white vigilantism of the past, the Nat Turners and the Red Clouds, as we should. We've always celebrated the idea. The only difference now is the makeup of the posse. Think about those guys’ long odds. We even went so far as to remake the 80’s cinematic homage to then-Cold War American vigilantism “Red Dawn", not that it was exactly calling out to be modernized. It was bad the first time. There’s very little that we love more than seeing the bad guy get it in the end.
While the marriage of these two beloved ideas, capitalism and punishment, may well have been inevitable, their combination has led us to what is, absolutely, truly, The Worst Idea in Human History: the FOR-PROFIT JAIL. I’ll admit that there’s a lot of competition for the worst idea ever. I’ll concede that slavery and genocide are obviously in the running for the worst idea ever, but, if you think about those two ideas from a different angle, they’re not entirely different from the idea of for-profit prisons. All three are, at heart, about capitalism and punishment, about class and money, about schadenfreude and making ourselves feel just a little better about our lot in life in the worst way possible, by comparing ourselves to generally bad people and then thinking that we, no matter what these people may have done, have the right to kill them. The Catholic Church may not be the most consistently ethical and forthright institution on the planet, but I do give them credit for having a consistent voice about it being God’s province to decide who lives and who dies and not ours.
Although it doesn’t need spelling out, I’ll do it anyway. We already incarcerate a larger percentage of our own people than Somalia and Turkmenistan (we’re number one!), and that’s sad. We are in the midst of a trend of rapidly privatizing and monetizing areas of life that haven’t traditionally been thought of as potentially marketable. Not all these ideas are bad ideas. I’m not saying that the government is the cure for all ills, but the corporate structure isn’t exactly a panacea either. For-profit schools might work. I don’t know. They might. I do think that making money and learning are different realms, different realities that might not mesh, and so I want to be against for-profit schools, but they really might work. The public school system isn’t the best argument against trying the idea. The best schools in America have long been private schools that, judging from the fact that a year’s tuition for a third-grader costs roughly the GNP of Ecuador, probably land “in the black” on the ledger sheet. Georgia’s pioneering charter schools, given enough time and flexibility, given an open door to many voices, might be an improvement over what we have now. It’s hard to imagine that they could be worse.
But, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve taken too many things out of the public realm and made them “products.” People owning the rights to future vegetable seeds that don’t yet exist? Bottled water? Are you kidding me? Water has ALWAYS been thought of as something for everybody to share. It’s kind of an important thing if you want to continue to live. Now we’re willing to pay two bucks for sixteen ounces of Atlanta tap water? (Sorry Coca-Cola, you’ve done great stuff for the state of Georgia and I love you for it, but that doesn’t mean that you’re perfect.) Yes, the very idea of bottled water is tin-foil-tube-socks, howl-at-the-moon, call-the-IRS-to-ask-for-help-with-your-next-Ponzi-scheme crazy, but even that’s not as stupid as for-profit prisons.
Let’s think. What is it that prisons are going to need in order to be “successful” businesses? Oh yeah, it’s prisoners. What’s the biggest not-completely-tapped-out labor pool of American workers, people to whom corporations are legally allowed to pay wages that would’ve made Dickensian chimney sweeps go on strike? Prison labor. Seriously, ask the next telemarketer who interrupts your dinner where his office is located. It’s either in South Florida or behind bars (and they’re essentially the same idea). And what’s going to happen when companies realize that they need more workers at $1.50 a day? You guessed right. They’re going to find ways to put more people in jail. Corporate America is a bit more politically connected than the felon lobby (it’s just the one guy, Fred Littlejohn, and his homemade shanks and personalized license plate political bribes aren’t working as well as he hoped). It’s really that simple.
This is the scariest idea we have around now, and that’s saying something in a world of drone warfare and Honey Boo Boo. We don’t need our jails to make money. We can still love capitalism AND punishment without letting the two ever meet face-to-face. They can be pen pals. They can be the mismatched Hollywood love interests as long as they get a Shakespearean tragic ending and not a happily-ever-after Hollywood one. If we let this trend continue unchecked, we’d all better brush up on our license plate making and telemarketing skills.