article: Great Prison and Casino Builders

Commentary Broadcast on KPBX Spokane Public Radio, 5/8/01 By Lester A. Shepard

If you are familiar with the controversy over the new 12-million-dollar jail in nearby Kootenai county, a recently published report might interest you. Joseph Hallinan’s “Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation” examines the rationale behind the US having a steadily increasing prison population, now in excess of two million. The author maintains that the threat of crime is used to justify the creation of a prison-industrial complex, a kind of novel analog and complement to the military-industrial complex. Jail construction as well as maintenance has come to be viewed nationally as an answer to local economic revival.

If Hallinan is right, we need a constant flow of inmates, and law enforcement to take care of the supply. It has in fact been argued that societal dynamics fosters the existence of a criminal class whose members are trapped forever, trained to the role of pariahs, until finally they are driven to accept it, becoming victims of their own self-concept. This might be an exaggeration. But a symbiotic relationship does seem to obtain between legality and illegality in several spheres.

On the one hand, the number of convicts is kept artificially inflated. Most of us believe that perpetrators of crimes should be incarcerated. Yet jail is probably not the proper place for many drug addicts, for example. And once a person has been bruised, so to speak, law enforcement tends to regard them as their legitimate preserve.

Conversely, at least as claimed by another book that has also just come out, Denton and Morris’s “The Money and the Power,”crime feeds off and collaborates with political parties, corporations, and government. The renowned racketeer Meyer Lansky, who managed to stay out of jail throughout most of his life, worked on the assumption that parties, banks, unions, and so on were de facto gangs. Lansky and the mob that built the Las Vegas strip contributed generously to Jack Kennedy’s presidential campaign, while according to Denton and Morris Ronald Reagan’s election ushered in an era underwritten by the syndicate. Today gambling stocks are owned by Harvard University in what the authors refer to as a “grand alliance of upperworld and underworld.”

Nature is based on an intricate network of interrelationships by whose ruthless logic living organisms both destroy and sustain one another. This sort of interdependence won’t serve as a model for a just human society. The economic benefits generated by the prison industry are actually unproductive, and contributions to public establishments from activities that are harmful to humans ultimately backfire. The short-term and circumstantial advantages are outweighed by lasting and large-scale damage.

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