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How America profits from throwing away the key



It was no simple task, writes Boulder-based author Joel Dyer, to try to figure out what went wrong with the United States' criminal justice system.

Yet, in his latest book, Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profits from Crime, Dyer documents in meticulous detail the rise of the prison-industrial complex.

Published by Westview Press, Dyer chronicles the unprecedented rise in the country's out-of-control criminal justice system, which has grown 10 times larger than it was just 29 years ago. In the new millennium, the United States has overtaken every other country in the world, including communist China, in the number of people imprisoned.

The United States spends about $150 billion a year on criminal justice and could crack the $200 billion mark by 2002. In comparison, the entire U.S. defense budget was $296 billion in 1999.

Dyer's findings are unsettling at best. In the rush to make jailing people big business, scores of special interests have jumped on the crime and prison bandwagon, including investors, private prison companies, politicians, pollsters, lobbyists and the media.

Everyone, it seems, is making money from the business of justice.

Indy: Your book targets a multitude of reasons for why the system has grown the way it has -- three strikes, truth in sentencing, hard-on-crime politicians, a clueless media. Without sounding like a conspiracy theorist, is this an orchestrated attempt to create a police state or did it snowball?

Dyer: That's really the power of the machine, and the problem is the fact that it's not a bunch of evil people setting out to create anything. I take exception to the people who try to explain it as a race war that is intentionally being handled by a bunch of white guys in Congress or something. The reality is, it's sort of capitalism at its worst. There's kind of a feedback loop between the media and political consultants and polling and politicians and private corporations making money off of the prisons. When all those people do just a little thing that's in their best interest, it all works together to create a really, really big problem.

Indy: So do you know of any politician who has been elected on the platform of prison reform?

Dyer: We're finally, in the last year or two, starting to see people willing to question the prison buildup. But it's got a long way to go. The system's still growing; it's just growing a little more slowly this year than what it's been doing.

Indy: Why more slowly this year?

Dyer: A couple reasons. One is, there's just not enough money in the pot to keep it going. Last I heard, there are 36 states that are having to cut their budgets because of the economic slowdown. [Politicians] have been willing to divert from schools and social programs in order to build prisons, but now there's not even enough money to divert.

Indy: You also pointed out the court system can't continue to sustain that kind of overburden on the prison system.

Dyer: California is a great example of how three strikes is turning others -- including violent offenders -- loose. The whole system, as a rule, can't deal with what we've been doing for the past 20 years, and I think the politicians are realizing that. Fiscal responsibility is going to force them to modify their current situation. It's sad that it came to that.

Indy: You're also a vocal critic of the media's refusal to cover crime stories and crime statistics in a way that accurately reflects reality. What can be done about it?

Dyer: The media has consolidated to the point that the emphasis has become so much on profit that we're not going to see any reform on the network news. They will continue to give two minutes to the report that says crimes are going down, and they'll proceed to give 20 hours worth of sensational crime coverage because that's what people want. That's completely irresponsible on the part of journalists giving people what they want disguised as news. It's like going in for brain surgery and telling the surgeon what you want him to do during the operation. He's paid to know what to do and to do what's best for you and, even though some people think it sounds arrogant, that's exactly what journalists are.

Indy: Brain surgeons in disguise?

Dyer: We're paid full-time to siphon the thousands of pieces of information that comes to us. When we decide that someone who cuts the head off and eats his victim in Tennessee is more important than substantive political issues or education issues, then we're the great Satan.

Indy: You were pretty strong in your comparison of the prisoner machine to slavery. Is it really fair to compare locking up criminals to owning slaves?

Dyer: Well, yeah. It is, if you look at it in the broadest sense. I would compare it to accidentally owning slaves. Is it as bad? It is as bad. So much lobbying money is pouring into politicians' [pockets] -- which also encourages them to be hard on crime and not talk about this issue realistically. Then you turn around and look at the companies that are lobbying for hard-on-crime measures because it means more prisoners and more money for them. At some level you have to say locking up a generation of black people and making $200 billion a year off of that is as bad as slavery -- at least in its effect on the communities where basically genocide is being committed. I believe if we don't view it as being a lot like slavery then we're missing the impact.

Indy: How has imprisoning essentially an entire generation of black men affected our society?

Dyer: It's caused those neighborhoods in those communities to implode. Just look at the stats: The majority of the people who turn to a life of crime comes from a single- parent household. Then you have to ask, Why do we have so many single-parent households? Well, because 80 percent of this whole generation is in jail and, once they go to jail, there's nothing to help them re-adjust when they get out. So they fall into a perpetual state of going back in, back in, back in again. That means that the next generation coming up has a much higher chance of going to jail themselves because they only had a single-parent household. It's crazy. It's a terrible domino effect.

Indy: Do you have a sense of what other countries -- who incarcerate far fewer people -- think about the United States' policies and its prison boom?

Dyer: They think it's insane. I've talked to a number of criminologists in other countries and they don't get it at all. They see it as an offshoot of political expediency. What's sad about this is all the research is there. Once you send someone to prison, let 'em get beat up a few times, gang raped a few times, totally made nuts by the whole process, then we kick 'em back on the streets. We've known since the '20s that prisons are a destructive influence on the individual and they create recidivism. Other countries reserve prison for their most violent, threatening criminals that need to be taken away and basically kept out of society.

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