For years PLN and the Wall Street Journal have been pretty much the only publications reporting, for very different reasons, the role that Lehman Brothers has played in financing the private prison industry. I have walked past the Lehman Brothers massive office near Times Square in the late afternoon when the chauffeured limousines stretched around the corner while awaiting their masters. These were the people profiting, very handsomely, from the misery of the prison industry. Yet when people think of prisons, jails and their beneficiaries few think of the bond traders and the lawyers and the banks who make the prison construction possible. Bob Libal and Nick Hudson’s article on the demise of Lehman Brothers should make clear to our readers why their going under is a good thing. I will note that for many years Lehman Brothers, like other investment banks, were faithful PLN subscribers. I assume they subscribed to PLN because of our ongoing and incisive coverage of the private prison industry they were bankrolling and not because of any concern for the rights of prisoners. I hate losing a subscriber and this is no exception, but under the circumstances one I can live with.
In the past 30 years almost a trillion dollars has been spent on prison and jail construction bonds around the country. Until last month’s financial bailout of Wall Street that was one of the biggest transfers of public wealth (read tax dollars) into private hands in US history.
Yet it was also one of the best kept secrets. Kevin Pranis’s article on the cover page of this issue of PLN originally appeared in Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Imprisonment (New Press, 2008) which was released earlier this year, and is available from PLN. Despite it’s enormous implications, there is a dearth of research on the public cost of financing mass imprisonment. Yet without the financing, prisons don’t get built. Perhaps one of the good things to flow from the “credit crunch” will be a dearth of capital to build more prisons and jails and maybe even less money with which to run them.
One thing about economic crisis is that it brings opportunity and this may be a chance to open the debate on mass imprisonment; whether the money is best spent on prisons and jails or not. On the other hand, when economies flatten, when unemployment goes up, when jobs become scarcer, street crime goes up and the potential for political unrest beyond letter writing and protests rise. Then, the real role of prisons as tools of social control come into play with the ruling class argument that more than ever there is a need and demand for more cops and more prisons. We can note that already Senators Obama and Biden are campaigning on a pledge of 100,000 more cops on the streets of America. Both major political parties are united in their support for mass imprisonment.
Understanding who the winners and losers are in the financing of mass imprisonment, and where the $80 billion dollars a year spent on prisons goes, is an important first step in challenging mass imprisonment as well as reordering those priorities. Prison Profiteers is a great primer on the topic and makes a great holiday gift.
While we are on the topic of financing, by now readers should have received PLN’s annual fundraiser. Unlike prisons and jails we don’t have billions of dollars at our disposal or a limitless fund of tax dollars to play with. Instead, we rely on donations from readers like you, subscription and ad income to make ends meet and continue our work. Besides publishing PLN and bringing people hard news they can use, we do cutting edge censorship and public records litigation, speaking and advocacy on behalf of the rights of prisoners across the country, media advocacy and a lot more. All of this takes money. We run a lean operation and stretch a dollar farther than anyone else. If you can afford to make a tax deductible donation please do so. Every donation, no matter how small, helps a lot. If every PLN subscriber donated $5 it would make a huge difference. More importantly, if everyone who is not a PLN subscriber but who reads it could donate $5 we could do a lot more.
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