By Larry Romanoff, October 6, 2022
In addition to torture and democracy, there is yet another place where the US can claim to be the world’s leader, and that is throwing people into prisons. America has only 4% of the world’s population, but has 25% of the world’s prisoners in jails, with more than one person in every 30 either in prison, on parole, probation, or in correctional supervision. This means that about one person in three in the US has a criminal record. The US has more prison inmates than the leading 35 European countries combined and, with a little over 300 million people, has a larger absolute number of prisoners in jails than does China – which has 1,400 million people. The incarceration rate in China and the European nations is around 100, while the US is at almost 8 times this number. In fact, the US rate is higher than those countries listed by Amnesty International as having urgent human rights issues.
Even Hillary Clinton agrees:
“It’s a stark fact that the United States has less than five percent of the world’s population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world’s total prison population. The numbers today are much higher than they were 30, 40 years ago despite the fact that crime is at historic lows.” Hillary Clinton, speech on criminal justice at Columbia University, April 29, 2015
Privatisation of Prisons
From the late 1930s and 1940s when the convict leasing programs finally died, the US incarceration rate and numbers of prisoners remained low and fairly constant. Then during Reagan’s presidency from 1981 to 1989, “The Great Transformation”, the privatisation of public assets and infrastructure began in earnest, and the American prison system expanded rapidly, the incarceration rate multiplying by about 10 times and public budgets by about 20 times. This explosion in the prison population was not a response to increasing crime, but due entirely to changes in sentencing law and judicial policy that resulted from the surreptitiously-planned creation of a commercial system of legally-sanctioned slavery.
Some social analysts complain that this policy has continued despite evidence that it does not achieve public safety, but public safety was never the issue, and examining these statistics is a wild goose chase. Analysts examining the brief recent history of the US criminal justice system often focus on all the wrong things, looking for logical explanations and justification for the vastly increased incarceration rates. But those examinations are misguided because the analysts are missing the essential point which is that there was never any demonstrated need for the changes made to the public justice system. The changes were initiated entirely as a commercial proposition, all done as part of a huge conspiracy to milk the profits inherent in a privatised prison system.
The plain truth is that Reagan was approached, as were many Senators and Congressmen, with a plan to loot the public treasury for the benefit of a few invisible people. This was a conspiracy driven entirely by greed and racism, deliberately designed to criminalise color and profit from poverty, in no small part by reinstating the inhuman convict leasing system. It was a conspiracy to collect millions of the black, Latino and poor white, those possessing little education, no assets or employment prospects, seen as making no contribution to society, and to convert them into corporate “assets” worth $50,000 to $75,000 per year each to be drained from the public purse. The first step was the legislated creation of private prisons.
Judges, Politicians, and Other Criminals
In the majority of US states, judges are elected, as are many sheriffs, with their campaigns heavily supported and funded by the incarceration firms who have spent more than $50 million to lobby and bribe federal and state legislators who would support their agenda to permit privatised incarceration. These invisible owners of the prison companies then lobbied heavily for drastic changes in the criminal justice system for no reason other than to fill their soon-to-be obscenely profitable private prisons. These changes included the institution of mandatory minimum sentences for even misdemeanor offenses, and for an altered immigration policy permitting the arrest of anyone unable to prove legal US entry. They lobbied hard to ensure harsh criminal punishments for even trivial offenses and for the criminalisation of minor transgressions, especially minor soft drug offenses, which is why these same people have been so adamant about escalating the totally fictitious “war on drugs”.
Thanks to their efforts beginning in the 1980s, life sentences without parole have grown exponentially even for trivial crimes, in part because prosecutors will now file multiple charges for a single offense, considering for example each email sent by a criminal as a separate crime with its own mandatory sentence. Life sentences have been freely handed out for stealing a bicycle or a jacket. “This conspiracy was the force behind some States’ “three strikes and you’re out” laws, often leading to life sentences for victimless crimes involving only a few dollars.”
In one case reported by the Guardian, a man took a jacket from a department store in New Orleans, and walked out without paying for it. He was convicted of shoplifting and sent to Angola prison in Louisiana. That was 16 years ago. Today he is still incarcerated in Angola, and will stay there for the rest of his natural life having been condemned to die in jail. All for the theft of a jacket, worth $159. “Until the early 1970s, life without parole sentences were virtually unknown. But they exploded as part of what the ACLU calls America’s “late-twentieth-century obsession with mass incarceration and extreme, inhumane penalties.” The report’s author Jennifer Turner states that today, the US is “virtually alone in its willingness to sentence non-violent offenders to die behind bars.”
Private Enterprise Prisons
These irrationally-enhanced penalties were all part of the vast plan by those few invisible people to create an enormous criminal class consisting of the black and the poor, and to profit hugely from the public treasury by controlling the incarceration and leasing of this new class of what are effectively indentured slaves. The new system is deeply racist, and is most of the cause behind the now common racial profiling of blacks and Latinos. The police are part of the process, the front line of soldiers who feed these new corporate assets into the private prison system. It is not accidental that about 80% of the US prison population consists of poor blacks and Latinos; these people have been selected as the inconsequential and disposable victims of this conspiracy for private profit. These are the same people, the same “surplus poor” who, a few centuries prior, were forcibly shipped as slaves from England to America, and the practice that virtually depopulated Ireland, and for the same reasons.
In some cases, these firms are hired to manage the state and federal prisons, receiving a ‘management fee’ of US$50,000 per prisoner whom they then “rent out” for another US$20,000 each. Many firms have contracts which guarantee payment for full occupancy, which means they are paid even if their jail cells are empty. Even more, the contracts demand that each day at least 35,000 immigrants without proper documentation (Mexicans and others) must be lodged in these private prisons. They reap even higher profits by under-feeding inmates and providing low-quality food, by hiring untrained staff, and by severe overcrowding to the extent that many jails do double and even triple bunking which means inmates sleep in shifts, sharing the same beds and rooms. These and many other provisions severely inflate the profits of the private prison system.
This is what is called a “public-private partnership” between the government and capitalists controlling the secret government. Democracy at its finest. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is the largest in the private prison management industry with more than 50 percent of the market, and operates around 70 prisons. Their CEO received more than $22 million in compensation in only a few years, far more than any government civil service employee might have been paid.
As one author so clearly noted, “Even ignoring the terrible human and social costs of such a policy, US incarceration carries a huge financial cost, at more than US$80 billion per year”. In America, spending on prisons has grown 1,500% since 1980, while spending on higher education has plummeted. California, with one of the highest incarceration rates and a private prison system, spends about $50,000 per inmate per year, but only $8,000 per student on higher education, spending in total about twice as much on incarcerating people as on educating them. Over the past 30 years, California has built one university and 20 prisons.” According to the Atlantic magazine, California now has the biggest prison system in the Western industrialized world, a system 40 percent bigger than the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Politifact manage to muddle this very badly, by including extra campus buildings as separate “universities” while omitting many of the prisons. Others disagree.
Bonnie Kerness, from a study of US prisons, wrote:
“People have said to me that the criminal justice system doesn’t work. I’ve come to believe that it works perfectly, just as slavery did, as a matter of economic and political policy. How is it that a 15-year-old in Newark who the country labels worthless to the economy, who has no hope of getting a job or affording college, can suddenly generate 20,000 to 30,000 dollars a year once trapped in the criminal justice system? The expansion of prisons, parole, probation, the court and police systems has resulted in an enormous bureaucracy … with one thing in common, a paycheck earned by keeping human beings in cages. The criminalization of poverty is a lucrative business, and we have replaced the social safety net with a dragnet. This whole new set of practices accepted by law enforcement was designed to continue to feed the money-generating prison system, which has neo-slavery at its core, sweeping up the poor and colored people.”
Her assessment is 100% correct, and it isn’t only the adult prisons but juvenile facilities as well that have succumbed to massive corruption, there having been recent court cases where judges had accepted huge sums of money from the incarceration firms to arbitrarily imprison thousands of minors in their institutions. The net result of this immense greed is that – according to the FBI’s own statistics – about 80 million people, or about one-third of all American adults now have a criminal record, for either arrest or conviction, or both. In the entire recorded history of the world, there is not today and there has never been any other authoritarian police state where a third of the entire population had been in prison. This is what Chris Hedges called “a grotesque manifestation of corporate capitalism“. Only in America, the birthplace of “freedom”.
Bad and Gone, but not Quite
“We have seen private prisons hit by scandal after scandal. For example, in 2016 the Walnut Grove correctional facility (run by the aforementioned MTC) was shut down after a federal judge disclosed that it “paints a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world,” including rape of younger inmates by older prisoners and guards denying medical care to, and having sexual relationships with, prisoners.
A 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said that “privately operated federal facilities are less secure, less safe, and drastically more punitive than publicly operated federal prisons. Inmate on inmate assaults were almost 30 percent higher in private prisons.” Following this report, the Justice Department announced that it intended to end its contracts with private prison operators as it deemed the facilities to be both less safe and less effective. Later in 2016, when President Trump was elected, the stock prices of private prison companies CoreCivic and GEO soared. A year later, in 2017, the DOJ under Attorney General Jeff Sessions overturned the decision not to use private prisons. And in 2018, private prison companies donated $1.6 million in contributions to the midterm elections. “CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), the largest operator of private prisons in the U.S. In fewer than 20 years, it’s seen its revenue increase by more than 500 percent, from roughly $280 million in 2000, to $1.77 billion in 2017.“
Police “gardening” – Planting Drugs
In a case that contains all the elements of official state corruption and under-the-table payments for the purpose of feeding the private prison system, a state chemist in Massachusetts was discovered to have falsified thousands of drug and other tests, almost certainly with the knowledge and participation of the prosecutors and the judges. The results have been catastrophic with judges claiming her falsified testimony may have unjustly imprisoned as many as 40,000 cases over the years. They have posed the concern that this fraudulent behavior may not at all have been limited to this one woman in one location, but may be endemic throughout the US criminal justice system. Thousands of falsely-convicted persons have already been set free, but it will likely be many years before this one case ends. One US journalist writing about this case stated that Americans would be fools to place any trust in the integrity of the American criminal justice system, and for this tragic condition we can blame the greed erupting from the tens of billions of dollars involved in the privatisation of the US prison system.
Another eerily similar case involves New York State Police and Texas police, among others in many locations who concocted their own private methods of earning bonuses by feeding the private prison system. In these cases, the police ground up pieces of gypsum wallboard (plaster), packed it in little bags, then stopped cars at random, conducted illegal searches, dropped their little bags of ground up plaster in the cars, and arrested the driver for illegal drug possession. According to reports, at least many hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent motorists were fraudulently convicted from this scheme until one “brave public defender” demanded the evidence be presented to the court and be tested for proof. The fraud was then exposed, and it was discovered that the courts and the public prosecutors had all participated in the conviction to receive their “bonuses” for high incarceration rates.
Kids for Cash
In 2008, there was a massive “kids for cash” scandal in Pennsylvania,  in which judges had accepted millions of dollars in return for an agreement to impose unduly harsh and unjustified sentences on juveniles brought before them, in order to inflate the number of profitable inmates in two privately-owned detention centers. Teenagers would be referred to this court for offenses as trivial as offending someone on Twitter, or “trespassing” in a vacant and abandoned building, and sentenced to long periods of incarceration. After an investigation ordered by the State Supreme Court, hundreds of convictions were overturned, but the damage had already been done.
This is not about the violation of the human rights of these individuals, though it is more than obvious that they do suffer egregious violations. This travesty is being done on such a massive scale involving millions of people, that it constitutes a crime against humanity itself. Under the political and financial influence of Bernays’ invisible people, the US has descended far deeper into its morass of moral deformity where it now sends more people to prison, for more different offenses, for longer periods of time, than any other nation.
Here, as in few other places, can we so clearly see the effects of privatising profits and socialising the costs. This vast new criminal class, left to itself, might contribute little to the economy but equally would cause little financial drain. With the legislative creation of the private prison system and the justice system creating the criminal class to fuel it, each of these individuals now produce $50,000 to $75,000 per year in revenue for these private corporations, most of which is drained from government tax revenue – from the public purse. The US government has conspired with these few individuals to create a hidden system by which they can loot the public treasury of many tens of billions of dollars every year on the pretense of being “tough on crime”.
A large percentage of these inmates become convict laborers who work in factories making military and police hardware including 100% of all items like helmets and bullet-proof vests, about 50% of all body armor, almost 100% of all paints and paint brushes, nearly 40% of all home appliances and about 25% of all US office furniture. They also make McDonald’s uniforms, Microsoft software packaging, Honda car parts, Victoria’s Secret lingerie, and they staff many call centers. In many states, when you call the Tourism Bureau for travel information you are speaking to an unpaid convict in forced labor. In addition to their payments from the governments, these firms receive another $20,000 in convict leasing fees, renting their involuntary slaves to corporations at $55 per day, while the inmates receive as little as 32 cents per hour and never more than about one dollar. Although little-publicised, the private convict lease system has also reinstituted the brutal practice of chain gangs, where dozens of convicts, in many cases women, are chained together with shackles and put to work building roads or other such projects, again for little or no pay but with huge profitability to the firms.
“[But] prisons do rely on the labor of incarcerated people for food service, laundry, and other operations, and they pay incarcerated workers unconscionably low wages: our 2017 study found that on average, incarcerated people earn between 86 cents and $3.45 per day for the most common prison jobs. In at least five states, those jobs pay nothing at all. Moreover, work in prison is compulsory, with little regulation or oversight, and incarcerated workers have few rights and protections. If they refuse to work, incarcerated people face disciplinary action. For those who do work, the paltry wages they receive often go right back to the prison, which charges them for basic necessities like medical visits and hygiene items. Forcing people to work for low or no pay and no benefits, while charging them for necessities, allows prisons to shift the costs of incarceration to incarcerated people.”
This has ramifications throughout industry and the labor market, seriously distorting the market competition for labor. One reason wages are so low in many parts of the US – a cause on a par with Wal-Mart – is that it’s cheaper to hire convicts who, even more conveniently, require neither benefits nor humane consideration. This is so true that demand for convict laborers in the US far outstrips supply. More than a million inmates in the US are working literally for pennies. Prisoners are producing furniture for the University of Colorado for $2.45 per day. It is almost comical to read articles in the US press about China using convict laborers when the US is the world leader in this regard.
In the late 1800s in the US, much furniture, shoes and clothing were produced in prisons, often in greater quantity than that produced by free workers. It was so bad even then that the wages of women making apparel were driven to almost nothing. The practice was banned in the early 1930s but then resurrected again around 1980, as part of the Great Transformation of America. Convicts today make up between 4% and 5% of total US manufacturing employment, America’s prisons representing a large and growing pool of available labor.
Private Probation Companies
Another arrow in their quiver was the institution of private probation companies, who are hugely profitable in their own right while serving as yet another feeder source to the private prison system. These probation firms offer to take responsibility for all those individuals, virtually all black, Latino and poor, who cannot immediately pay a small court fine or are otherwise under the custodial care of a court. The firms add entry fees, monthly fees and a multitude of other charges to the original fine, to the extent that a $100 speeding ticket can grow to many thousands of dollars – and well outside the ability of these individuals to pay. If the firm is able to eventually collect all its exorbitant fees, then well and good. If not, it charges the victim with a parole violation which means automatic jail time.
With this, these unfortunate poor are being deliberately driven farther into poverty and eventually sold into what is a modern debtor’s prison system where they will produce huge profits for the owners. They are being slowly bled to death. One 31-year-old woman received a $179 fine for speeding. When she couldn’t pay immediately, she was turned over to a probation firm where her debt immediately totaled more than $1,500. Unable to pay, she was jailed and charged additional fees for each day she spent behind bars. After 40 days in jail, she then owed the probation company $3,170. These companies function in a sense as bill collectors for the local courts, but are given the authority to determine that any individual will be sold to the private prison system if they fail to pay their debt immediately. These firms, the courts, the prosecutors, the police and the private prisons are all engaged in a conspiracy to shift much of the cost of the judicial system to the (often innocent) offenders.
The Past is Prelude
Let’s go back in history for a moment to a period prior to the 1920s and 1930s when these same attitudes flourished. Americans will tell you that the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution set the nation on a new morally-righteous course by outlawing slavery, but that claim is false. Slavery was never abolished in America. The 13th Amendment states clearly that slavery and involuntary servitude are permissible “as punishment for crimes”, and that says it all.  After this amendment, slavery continued in the US as before but with an altered structure. Prior to this, blacks, whites and native Indians were owned by their masters; after the amendment, they were free criminals being punished for crimes – the only useful difference being the change in name. Immediately upon the granting of their “freedom”, those same people were rounded up as criminals and placed into the nation’s new convict leasing system where they were treated as badly as before. “The Southern states passed “Black Codes”, or laws that only applied to Black people and made them open to prosecution for “offenses” such as loitering, breaking curfew, vagrancy, having weapons, and not carrying proof of employment. Additionally, children of “ineffective parents” would be placed in “apprenticeships” in which they were forced to work on plantations.”
New laws were immediately passed that would effectively criminalise blacks and other former slaves and permit their re-insertion into slavery. These so-called crimes were often so vaguely-defined as to be universal, as was their capricious and arbitrary enforcement. A theft of an item worth less than a dollar would result in a prison sentence of five years. For blacks and former slaves, vagrancy was a crime, as was ‘wandering’. Looking at a white woman was a crime, possessing insufficient identification or proof of employment would result in a prison sentence, as would owing a debt or ‘walking while being black’. Additional crimes were fabricated almost daily to justify the rounding up of the blacks – and many of the poor white – into what could become a lifetime of indentured slavery. Laws allowed for police to “round up idle blacks in times of labor scarcity” and gave employers a legal tool to prevent these slave workers from ever leaving.
In many cases, the prisons didn’t even exist. Newly-sentenced ‘criminals’ would be sent directly to the work sites of their new owners. These forced labor programs existed throughout the US though they were more common in the South, and represented an almost unlimited source of cheap and disposable labor. All costs of housing, clothing and medical care could be charged to these convicts who, having no money, were unable to pay and thus accumulated an increasing debt load that might never be worked off. The treatment of blacks and the poor actually degraded after the so-called abolition of slavery. Since these convicts were not owned assets their deaths constituted no loss, and thus cruel mistreatment, torture and killing were common and unpunished. This program ideally suited the American culture and social system since it so perfectly gave expression to their natural Christian racism and to the secret elites’ long historical record of the commercially-profitable exploitation of human misery. Most American history books will tell us the system died out in the early 1900s, but that is not true. The state of Tennessee owned coal mines that were built and worked by convict slave labor which did not close until about 1970, and there are other examples.
“Within a few years states realized they could lease out their convicts to local planters or industrialists who would pay minimal rates for the workers and be responsible for their housing and feeding — thereby eliminating costs and increasing revenue. Soon, markets for convict laborers developed, with entrepreneurs buying and selling convict labor leases. Unlike slavery, employers had only a small capital investment in convict laborers, and little incentive to treat them well. Convict laborers were often dismally treated, but the convict lease system was highly profitable for the states and the employers.”
This was one of the harshest and most exploitative labor systems in the world’s modern history. All the Christian nations were shockingly cruel, but the US was arguably the worst of all. The writer Douglas A. Blackmon described the system this way: “It was a form of bondage distinctly different from that of the antebellum South in that for most men this slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was nonetheless slavery – a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion.” The second link  is an interesting very short video.
Returning to the present day, we can see that nothing has changed. Slavery and all its derivatives, including today’s US prison and criminal justice systems, have always been entirely commercial in character, representing American capitalism at its finest. The old convict lease system and unpaid forced labor as a financially profitable way to prey on the blacks and the poor, has been resurrected virtually intact, as have the debtors’ prisons of the private probation companies. The structural framework has changed somewhat, but the essentials and the results – in terms of both human misery and commercial profit – are identical to the varied systems of commercially-driven predatory racism that have existed in the US and been perpetrated by the bankers and elites for hundreds of years. The American Dream is not for everyone.
Mr. Romanoff’s writing has been translated into 32 languages and his articles posted on more than 150 foreign-language news and politics websites in more than 30 countries, as well as more than 100 English language platforms. Larry Romanoff is a retired management consultant and businessman. He has held senior executive positions in international consulting firms, and owned an international import-export business. He has been a visiting professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, presenting case studies in international affairs to senior EMBA classes. Mr. Romanoff lives in Shanghai and is currently writing a series of ten books generally related to China and the West. He is one of the contributing authors to Cynthia McKinney’s new anthology ‘When China Sneezes’. (Chapt. 2 — Dealing with Demons).
His full archive can be seen at
https://www.bluemoonofshanghai.com/ + https://www.moonofshanghai.com/
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Copyright © Larry Romanoff, Blue Moon of Shanghai, Moon of Shanghai, 2022