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August 25, 2008

Still more evidence it's the prison economy, stupid

This article from this weekend's New York Times highlights the important connection between economic realities and prison nation.  Here is how the piece starts:

When residents here heard that the governor wanted to close the 137-year-old Pontiac Correctional Center, taking hundreds of jobs from the area, they mobilized. They held rallies and a parade. Streets were lined with blue and white “Save Our Prison” signs, and people were outfitted in T-shirts to match.

The 12,000 or so residents now find themselves trying to talk Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, a Democrat, out of closing the town’s second-largest employer to help fill a $700 million hole in the state budget.

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August 25, 2008 at 08:01 AM | Permalink


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So prisons have become a local version of military bases? Opposed on their way in and opposed on their way out.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Aug 25, 2008 9:22:27 AM

Elsewhere, Doug, you've wondered why Democrats aren't better on crime and punishment issues and Republicans (usually among the religious right) frequently take the lead on reforms instead of Dems. A big part of the answer may be found by examining the logo on the t-shirts at the event in the NYT photo.

Dems pander to unions the same way Rs pander to the NRA or anti-abortion activists. Complicating matters, in right-to-work-for-less states, the public employee unions are typically the only significant, powerful organized labor entities. Interests of those core constituents conflict with other D constituencies and creates the inner gridlock that prevents the Clintons and Bidens of the world from being better than they are on these topics.

As for this town's protest, it appears truly impressive but is just as misguided. Everyone claims the sky is falling whenever the government teat is removed. If the state needs the prison, ample guards should be employed to staff it. But it's insane to keep a prison open merely IN ORDER TO employ people as guards. At that point, everyone's priorities have become skewed.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Aug 25, 2008 10:40:52 AM

Unfortunately, citizens don't want to pay higher taxes to make sure only the guilty are put behind bars, but when a prison closure might harm the economy, people are up in arms. It's a sad commentary.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 25, 2008 11:15:55 AM

Many communities have lobbied for prisons. They consider a prison in their community a form of economic development. Actually this is true of federal facilities also. This is not a new development. Edgefield South Carolina is the home of FCI Edgefield because it was the home of Strom Thurmond.

It is also true that public employees unions will resist closing these facilities. Many others have a financial interest in incarceration - Union members, suppliers, contractors, food service, attorneys. It has become a lucrative industry for many.

Posted by: beth curtis | Aug 25, 2008 4:13:24 PM

I disagree with Grits that Democrats aren't better on crime issue because they are beholden to unions. Democrats, like Republicans, represent the employing (corporate) class, not the working class. True, they represent "soft" capitalism, and so, as between the two parties, Democrats get the union support, but I think the reason Democrats are bad on crime is because they are fundamentally a party representing corporate business interests.

I do agree with Grits that in right-to-work-for-less states, public employee unions are typically the only significant, powerful organized labor entities. I think it's ironic (given the political leanings of most of those employees), but I don't think this has a lot to do with the crime issue.

What I find interesting about the article is the mere concept of a "save our prison" campaign. It's as if it's so important to the economy to keep the prison that it's acceptable for people to be imprisoned simply to keep the economy chugging. This is a snapshot of a failed state.

Imagine if, instead of prisons, the government spent that much money on something productive like schools or other building programs that kept people (including those people currently in the prisons) employed. Take the people out of the prisons and put them to work.

Posted by: DK | Aug 25, 2008 7:45:19 PM

Saving prisons is not important to the economy.

The "save our prisons" campaign is a campaign by public employees unions to save their jobs. This is why democrats will have a difficult time reducing the prison population. These folks are their constitutes.

Posted by: beth curtis | Aug 25, 2008 10:16:10 PM

I'm not so sure that prison guard unions are constituents of Democrats any more than police unions are. See, e.g., this (reflecting that the "Florida Police Benevolent Association [is] a 34,000-member union and political behemoth that has reported more than $2-million in political activity this election cycle, from heavy backing of Republican gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist to playing a role in local sheriff's races"). See also 2006 PAC contributions to federal candidates from public sector unions (reflecting that police associations give to Republicans).

Don't get me wrong. I agree that Democrats will have a difficult time reducing the prison population, but I don't believe that has anything to do with unions. After all, the prison economy is bigger than the people working at prisons. It touches the entire town, including private businesses: "Mayor Scott McCoy said about 570 jobs in this central Illinois town would be lost. He worries about lost revenues for the city, construction companies, restaurants and other businesses, which one study estimated at more than $50 million a year." That means businesses lose, too, and neither Democrats nor Republicans tolerate that.

Posted by: DK | Aug 25, 2008 11:37:41 PM

DK, what makes you think Dems don't pander to public safety unions in their criminal justice policies? Who do you think they're pitching the tough on crime stuff to, the NAACP?

I'd suggest that if you believe police, prison guard and other public safety unions don't have "a lot to do with the crime issue" and in particular the positions of Democrats, you've likely had little direct experience working these subjects in the political process - either state or local. On innumerable issues (in this case, promoting incarceration as a jobs program for guards) public employee unions, along with prosecutors, are virtually the only powerful institutional interests lobbying for regressive policies and against reforms.

I don't have enough fingers and toes to count all the reform bills I've personally seen killed over the years because of Dems sucking up to Texas police unions, in particular. In Illinois, California and several other large states, prison guards are equally well-organized (though for several reasons that's not the case in TX where I live).

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Aug 26, 2008 9:44:22 AM

On contributions, DK, I forgot to respond. Those numbers reflect the fact that institutional interests donate to INCUMBENTS. At the state and local levels, contributions tell a different story. What's more, there's an overarching antipathy toward union interests generally among certain factions of the GOP that make them at most an ally of convenience for unions but not their natural home, which is undoubtedly with the Dems.

Posted by: gr | Aug 26, 2008 9:46:58 AM


Dems pitch the "tough on crime" routine to the same folk Republicans do: the white middle class, who make up the bulk of the electorate. (And, sadly, they do it for the same reason as Republicans.) The NAACP and unions don't stick with Dems because Dems represent them any more than the Christian right sticks with the Republicans because Republicans represent them. They stick with them because, in a two-party system, there is simply nowhere else to go for any of them. And that aside, I'm just not sure that police and correctional officer unions can be so easily lumped together with other public service sector unions (like teachers) or to private sector unions. How are the Republicans a threat to the former like they are to the latter? I think that's why you will see that the former are much more willing to contribute to Republicans than the latter (at least that seems to be the case from the admittedly limited data I've seen).

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