Prison Profiteers

Criminal justice in early America centered on vengeance and swift corporal punishment for sinners, criminals, and African American slaves.  When formal corrections eventually formed in the mid-19th Century,  there was a propensity to involve private sector actors and profiteering motives.  For instance, several states instituted “convict leasing” systems that provided cheap convict labor to commercial enterprises.  Prisoners were swiftly processed by local courts and transported as subsidized labor to private warehouses, railroads, and plantations.  Market-based corrections eventually waned in the early 20th Century as  prison maintenance became accepted as a core governmental function characterized by publicly-controlled prison facilities.

The Reagan years ushered in an administrative movement toward privatization or “contracting-out” of government services with market-based actors, especially in the area of human-support services (e.g. charter schools, non-profit health facilities, etc.).  Political elites of all ideological stripes have embraced the notion of “entrepreneurial government” that harnesses the dynamism and innovation of private sector actors in public service provision.  Over the past few decades, we have witnessed the privatization of schools, garbage collection, military services, mental health services, welfare-to-work offices, electronic record-keeping, and myriad other governmental functions.  In the push for privatization, public-private partnerships have also waded into more controversial waters, such as the administration of America’s prisons.

While incorporating private-sector actors into government functioning makes some policy sense, all government functions are not created equal and favorable market conditions do not exist universally.  Thus, the success of privatization is likely conditioned by specific policy areas and situational nature of the marketplace.  Free-market ideology alone does not guarantee improvements in policy implementation.  In the case of America’s prisons, it could be argued that privatization will do little to improve service delivery.

1.  A competitive market for prison maintenance services does not exist.  It is unclear that a market would exist at all without government support (prisoners are not exactly lucrative “customers” in the open marketplace).  At best the market functions as an oligarchy with a few major players seeking government contracts.  Correctional Corporation of America and the Wackenhut Correctional Corporation operate effectively as a duopoly, guaranteed contractual renewal irrespective of performance.  In short, there are few if any competitive rivals and minimal market pressure to function optimally.

2.  Profiteering motives could induce perverse incentives along several dimensions.  Maximizing profits means maximizing “customers” or in this case maximizing the number of prisoners.  Thus, prison corporations could potentially lobby for even more punitive criminal justice measures, producing a steady stream of clients (and revenues).  Mass incarceration strategies (e.g. War on Drugs) have imprisoned millions of Americans over the past few decades, and might only worsen under a privatized system.  Secondly, Maximizing profits also involves minimizing costs to personnel and services.  These could come in the form of company layoffs, cuts to worker wages/benefits, or cuts in prisoner services (like health care or food service perhaps).  Shareholders might enjoy extra dividends but prison security and prisoners themselves will likely take the brunt of privatization efforts.  There is a human cost to corporate “efficiency” that is likely magnified in the prison privatization context.

3.  Scholars and practitioners have suggested that a “paradox of privatization” exists in the provision of public services.  In short, the paradox states that shedding government functions to the private sector requires increased government oversight mechanisms to monitor private sector actors.  When the government contracts with third-party providers, more government is needed to make sure market actors are accountable to taxpayers.  Any cost savings reaped from private-sector prison management are blunted because of increased costs to government oversight.

4.  Last but not least there are thorny ethical issues related to corporate control and the power to incarcerate citizens.  Should corporations be in charge of punishment in America, an areas that has traditionally been the purview of government authority?  If we are going to incarcerate and punish millions of individuals, should there be some baseline public accountability?  Is it unethical to profit from the punishment of American citizens?

Today, approximately 3 million individuals populate America’s prisons, and the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  We should be striving to reduce the incarceration rate, and I’m not convinced that allowing corporations to profit from mass imprisonment will abate those trends.  We should think long and hard about the potential drawbacks to prison privatization before handing the keys of justice over to the Correctional Corporations of America.


Libertarian Ambivalence

Like many states before them, earlier this year, North Carolina voters approved a measure that banned same-sex marriage.  Subsequent reaction largely followed conventional political wisdom.  Conservatives mostly applauded the marriage ban, liberals mostly derided the ban, but I noticed a more muddled and mixed reaction from my libertarian friends.  Nearly everyone was appalled at the infringement of individual liberty but some still viewed the ban as properly constitutional, while others viewed the ban as grossly unconstitutional.  How can well-intentioned libertarians disagree over the dynamics of federalism and basic constitutional interpretation?

Ron Paul and other Libertarian Party elites (Gary Johnson, Jim Gray, etc.) talk rather flippantly about constitutional interpretation, framing the document as clear, obvious, or simplistic.  The mixed reaction from libertarian adherents to the NC marriage ban hints at a deeper complexity beyond the surface-level purity that libertarianism routinely exhibits.  The crux of this complexity lies in the inherent constitutional contradiction that simultaneously grants both individual freedom and states’ rightsand the fact that those two principles [individual freedom and states’ rights] oftentimes conflict with each other.

In short, when it comes to personal privacy issues some libertarians favor the individual freedom implied in the 9th and 14th Amendments, while others favor 10th Amendment states’ rights even when it restricts individual freedom, such as with the NC marriage ban.  Put another way, some viewed the NC measure as an unconstitutional affront to individual liberty (i.e. favor 9th and 14th Amendments), while others viewed it as a proper constitutional exercise in state sovereignty (i.e. favor 10th Amendment).

Take another example, the landmark Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which declared anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional, effectively liberating homosexuals from criminalizing Texas statutes.  Is there a “pure” or “correct” libertarian reaction to this ruling?  Probably not.

Some libertarians might champion the Lawrence decision on constitutional grounds that the 9th and 14th Amendments properly limit states’ rights and guarantee individual freedom to engage in private sexual behavior.  That is to say, an individual’s right to engage in private sexual behavior supercedes the 10th Amendment’s right of the states to regulate sexual behavior.  Conversely, other libertarians might deride the Lawrence decision on “principled” 10th Amendment grounds.  Anything that is not explicitly mentioned in the constitution should – always and everywhere – remain the purview of the states.  Thus, many libertarians would accept punitive governmental restriction that occurs at the state-level.  Because “sodomy” is not explicitly listed as a federally protected right (e.g. sodomy is not explicitly listed in the Bill of Rights) then states have the right to regulate and criminalize individual behavior at will.

One basic truism in American politics is that states’ rights is not tantamount to expanding individual freedom (think about Jim Crow segregation or militarized sodomy police squads), and libertarians will continue to exude muddled constitutional interpretation when these two principals inevitably collide.  Some will side with individuals while others with the states.  The idea that there exists one universally pure libertarian way to interpret the constitution is myth.

Built St. Louis

Urban sprawl and mass suburbanization have taken their toll on St. Louis City.  The central-city in particular has been largely abandoned, and has been decaying physically, socially, and economically for decades.  The population of St. Louis City reached a zenith in the early 1960s at approximately 900,000 residents.  Today, approximately 300,000 individuals reside within city limits, representing a 66% population decline.  That bears repeating.  66% fewer people reside within city borders today… 600,000 fewer people than just a few decades prior!  The mass exodus has been staggering.

Similar dynamics of sprawl, depopulation, and central-city abandonment have taken place across the broader American landscape.  While “metropolitan areas” continue to blossom, the population in central-city areas continues to decline, albeit at a much slower pace than in the 1970s and 80s.  Many of our great Rustbelt cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, etc. have witnessed crippling population loss to outlying suburban and exurban areas.  For instance, the “north-side” of St. Louis once was once bustling with social and commercial activity in areas like Gaslight Square. Here is what north St. Louis looks like today as a result of sprawl and abandonment.

A website called “Built St. Louis” ( meticulously documents the historic structures we have lost over the past few decades.  You will literally weep at the inner-city degradation and callous disregard of palatial brick homes and historic landmarks.  Built St. Louis demonstrates that we do not treasure “place” in America to the extent that other societies do, and it comes at our own peril.  Get lost for hours as Built St. Louis documents the structural landmarks and thriving communities that have gone missing.

The causes of sprawl are varied and complex from increased highway and automobile access, to racial politics or “white flight”, to inadequacies of liberal city governments, but those causal concerns are not driving this blog post.  In Robert Putnam’s seminal work entitled “Bowling Alone”, the author posits that suburbanization, characterized by isolated gated communities, automobile dependence, and lack of sidewalks has partially eroded our “social capital” and sense of oneness as a nation.  We have chosen to bulldoze many historic city buildings in the name of sprawl, but have we lost something bigger like healthy social interaction and community bonding?  Is sprawl ultimately detrimental to our sense of togetherness and social connectedness?  Something to ponder next time you take the T.R. Hughes exit ramp.

We should care when majestic structures are razed to pave another parking lot, but we should also be cognizant of the larger societal forces at play, and continually endeavor to better understand the consequences of sprawl on our communities and environment.

First Debate

In the general election, Romney can effectively argue that federalism allows Massachusetts to experiment with a health care mandate as a decentralized “laboratory of democracy.”  It is the 10th Amendment purview of the states to enact insurance mandates if they desire, but such actions should be limited at the federal level.  While Romney can appeal to voters on grounds of states’ rights, the functional policy question remains and he will likely have to defend his actions as governor at the first presidential debate.

Moderator (I’m thinking Jim Lehrer):  “Even if you believe mandates should be limited to state governments, why is it that you pursued and signed into law an insurance mandate in Massachusetts?  Why is a mandate good for Massachusetts?  Why does a mandate make insurance markets function more effectively  and make sense for Massachusetts citizens?  If this policy is good for the people of Massachusetts, how can you criticize  President Obama when he pursues similar policy approaches?

Romney: “Ummmmmm… Jim, can I use one of my lifelines?”

Hillbilly Hotdogs

Before moving to Cal State I taught at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.  Huntington is in many ways a picturesque college town with coffee shops, sushi spots, theater, and all the modern trappings one might enjoy in civilized America.  It is also located in the heart  of Appalachia and has a distinct hillbilly undercurrent.  For instance, Huntington holds the unflattering moniker of “fattest city in America.”   I am significantly overweight but felt almost svelte around town.  The establishment fueling Huntington’s waistbands:  Hillbilly Hotdogs.

Founded in 1999, Hillbilly Hotdogs boasts some 25+ different hotdog options from their extensive menu of Appalachian delicacies.  You can gorge on anything from the Taco Dog [6” dog covered with jalapenos, nacho cheese, crushed up nacho chips, chili sauce, sour cream, and shredded cheese] to Stacy’s Flu Shot [6” dog with jalapenos, chili sauce, spicy A-1 sauce, and sriracha hot sauce] to The Homewrecker [15” dog with EVERYTHING… Taco Dog plus mustard, relish, mayonnaise, bbq sauce, sauerkraut, and coleslaw].

The multitude of side dishes (served in collectable McDonald’s plastic bowls from the 1980s) are all deep fried and delicious.  “Fried Fixins” as they are known by locals include crinkle-cut fries (cheese or chili cheese options); garlic ranch fries; fried pickles; cheese sticks; jalapeno poppers; chicken nuggets; and deep-fried mac and cheese!  If you want to salivate via the interwebs, the full menu can be found at

When you find yourself in West Virginia head directly to Hillbilly Hotdogs and then to the hospital for heart defibrillation!


Southern Strategy

48 years ago today, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Following the passage of the CRA in 1964, African Americans were granted equal access to “places of public accommodation” (e.g. restaurants, theaters, buses, bowling alleys, etc.), ending the brutal era of Jim Crow segregation and subjugation.  Needless to say, white Southerners – and the deeper heritage of white supremacy – did not agree with this federal push for racial equality.  The CRA ruptured racial fault lines and forever altered the American political landscape, much like the Civil War had done 100 years earlier.

In response to the CRA, the Republican Party apparatchik instituted the “Southern Strategy” in which they sought to gain political support from disaffected white Southerners.  Republican elites like Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan siezed upon a golden political opportunity to shift the South into the Republican camp by catering to Southern style cultural conservatism.  Indeed, Republican nominee Barry Goldwater vocally opposed the Civil Rights Act and dominated Southern states in the presidential election of 1964 – the first time a Republican presidential candidate had ever captured the South.  Four years later in 1968, Southern states supported segregationist candidate, George Wallace, and in 1972 overwhelmingly supported Nixon.  Patterns of Republican allegiance and burgeoning GOP political power in the Deep South have continued in near lockstep ever since.

Republicans undertake the Southern Strategy by playing on the propensity to stereotype racial minorities in negative and unflattering ways.  In short, conservative elites and right-wing media stir up whites’ fear and suspicion of “others” (e.g. minority groups like homosexuals, Muslims, African Americans, immigrants, etc.).  They stoke resentment toward African Americans and immigrants particularly, they have since the Nixon Administration and will continue to do so because it helps them politically.  Dixiecrats – ultra conservative Southern Democrats – are now partisan Republicans in the 21st Century and the deep South forms the backbone (if not the heart) of the modern Republican Party.

Here are just a few examples (among many) from right-wing media and various Republican elites:

(1)  Obama was “chugging 40s” instead of helping the Joplin tornado victims

–          Eric Bolling on the Fox Business Network

(2)  Obama was hosting “hoods in the hizzouse” by having the Prime Minister of Gabon over for a diplomatic meeting

–          Eric Bolling on the Fox Business Network

(3)  Obama was hosting a “violent cop-killer” by inviting rapper Common over for a poetry reading

–          Guest on Bill O’Reilly’s show the O’Reilly Factor

(4)  “None of these camel jockeys ever should have messed with us”

–          Guest on the Sean Hannity show – There is a continual effort in far right-wing circles to dehumanize and negatively stereotype Muslims and Middle Easterners as violent, savage, animalistic terrorists.  Muslims are invading and actively instituting draconian Sharia Law in America.  Fringe conservative groups distribute videos with ominous sounding voices talking about the impending doom of Muslim domination.  “They” (Muslims) are coming for “us” (whites)… Continual fear and white victimology.  Southern Strategy!

(5)  “Blacks should demand paychecks not food stamps”

–          Newt Gingrich on the campaign trail in late 2011.  Why does Newt specifically refer to “blacks” when talking about food stamps?  Most food stamp recipients are white and food stamp usage has increased across all demographic groups during this Great Recession, but he specifically castigates “blacks” on food assistance.  He does this for a strategic reason.  The Southern Strategy subtext is that blacks are lazy, undeserving, and demanding food assistance instead of actively seeking work, and thus stealing your (white) tax dollars to live lavishly on the dole.  Newt played the Southern Strategy like Charlie Daniels’ fiddle and actually won the South Carolina primary decisively!

(6)  “I don’t want to make black peoples’ lives better by giving them somebody else’s money”

–          Rick Santorum on the campaign trail in January of 2012.  This is the same racialized “welfare queen” meme that Newt utilized in South Carolina.  “They” (blacks) are lazy welfare moochers leeching off  “your” (white) tax dollars.  The ugly stereotype that blacks are “lazy” has deep roots in America.  It was historically used a a justification for slavery and has been part of white socialization throughout American history.  Unfortunately this potent stereotype remains ingrained in America’s collective conscious.  Modern conservatives stoke this racial antipathy by tying minorities to “welfare” whenever possible.  Reagan was a master with his “welfare queen” rhetoric.  He would talk about a (mythical) lady from the “south-side of Chicago” (hint, hint) that has  8 Social Security cards, gets 5 welfare checks, eats t-bone steaks every night, and makes nearly $200K peryear through welfare fraud.  Southern Strategy!

UPDATE (7/12/2012) – “If blacks just want more free stuff they should vote for the other guy.” – Mitt Romney on the campaign trail at a fundraiser in Montana after meeting with the NAACP earlier in the day.  You get it by now…

(7)  “President Obama is a racist that hates white people and white culture”

–          Glenn Beck appearing on the Fox and Friends morning show.  Glenn knows that stoking resentment, (Obama “hates you”) and fear plays well with his very right-wing audience.  Glenn is the new face of McCarthyism in the 21st Century… The new Red Scare continually casting suspicion and animosity toward “them.”  Glenn knows where his bread is buttered and he generally keeps a divisive racialized theme running in his projects.  For instance, his internet arm, The Blaze, continually runs stories about how the – mostly irrelevant and anemic – New Black Panther Party is threatening whites’ dominate position in society.

(8)  “Where is the birth certificate? Obama was born in Kenya!”

–          Donald Trump during the summer of 2011.  “Birtherism”, the (fallacious) belief that Obama was born in Kenya, is thinly veiled racism – not even thinly veiled really – and is popular only in staunchly conservative circles.  Birther conspiracy websites populate right-wing enclaves, and media outlets like The Blaze, Drudge Report, World Net Daily, Big Government, etc. openly stoke suspicion about Obama’s birthright citizenship.  Birtherism is probably the most obvious manifestation of racial resentment and latent racism in right-wing political circles today.

Coda:  I do not believe the modern Republican Party is inherently racist, nor do I believe most Republicans or conservatives are fueled by racism.  I also understand that divisive racial appeals exist in left-wing circles (e.g. shallow appeals to minority victimology), but the fact remains that the peculiar brand of Southern animosity and resentment is partially reflected in modern right-wing political movements like the Tea Party.  The Republican Party is becoming a cloistered Southern, white (and elderly) party in some respects and they will have to find avenues to reach a broader electorate if they want to compete in American elections long-term.