Commentary: Snakes often get a bad rap and I don’t wish to defame them further. They are splendid creatures and beneficial neighbors, but Aesop did not boost their fearful reputation with his fable about the farmer and the viper. The story goes that a farmer finds a snake dying from cold and wraps the snake up in his jacket to warm him. As the snake revives, he promptly bites his host. The farmer dies saying, “It was my own fault, trusting a scoundrel.”
Let us be fair to snakes and revise the moral to state that snakes are not inherently vicious, but stuffing one in your clothing is bound to turn out badly.
Privatization – the process of delivering a public good or service to the private sector, especially to a profit-seeking enterprise – benefits capitalists by bringing public money into the marketplace, and is often seen as a way to streamline government operations and create jobs, a “win-win” for government and business. Yet some public services are not compatible with the profit motive, and trying to wed them sets up cruel and destructive incentives. When a company’s need to enrich shareholders comes into conflict with the common good, you have a proverbial snake in your bosom.
A plain example of this is the private prison industry. This enterprise mushroomed along with mass incarceration in the 1990s, as many communities embraced private prisons as saviors to their struggling economies. It would be perverse to think that criminal justice reforms leading to fewer arrests and shorter periods of detention is bad news for society – but that is indeed the case for communities that invest their fortune in prisons-for-profit.
Late last month, CoreCivic, formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America, threatened to close its prison in the town of Estancia and lay off all 203 employees because it was not making enough money. Within 60 days, 300 more human beings would need to be imprisoned or the joint would close. The nature of this relationship is perfectly plain. The company is there to make a profit, and it will leave the community when the profits shrink.
For Estancia, that means an immediate 60 percent drop in gross receipts tax revenue, lost utility fees, and much of the population unemployed and perhaps leaving town. Torrance County loses its largest employer. The Sheriff needs to find another facility for 55-60 detainees in his custody daily, straining his budget and deputies’ time. CoreCivic walks away clean to seek jackpots elsewhere.
What are we supposed to do, push for more arrests and convictions at any cost, to ensure a private corporation’s profits and preserve some jobs? Here is why prisons and private capital are not suited for each other. Criminal justice cannot serve the human interest and the needs of a capitalist organization. It is not a “win-win.” Either we keep locking more people up and for longer periods, in the interest of corporate revenue, or the company will pull out.
The data shows us repeatedly that private prisons don’t pay off for local economies, and yet our cash-strapped state and struggling local governments are in no position to reclaim all our prisons from the private sector. As a commercial enterprise, for-profit prisons work against the common good and bind communities to their private fortune. When a lower population of prisoners is considered bad economic news, it’s time to rethink the economy.
But if you choose to stuff a snake in your jacket all the same, don’t be surprised when it bites.
Algernon D’Ammassa writes the “Desert Sage” column for the Deming Headlight and Sun News papers. Share your thoughts firstname.lastname@example.org.