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You’ve heard about the School of the Americas, right?  It’s that site at Fort Benning, Georgia where our military men train Latin American soldiers in the art of intimidating and torturing human rights activists.  You’ve heard of it, but you haven’t gone down there to demonstrate against it, right?  Much less crawled under the fence and deliberately gotten yourself arrested for trespass.

Tina Busch-Nema, a St. Louis County woman,described why she did exactly that.  She spoke last spring to the West County Democrats before leaving for a two month prison term in Texas, and while she was incarcerated in the privately owned prison for female inmates with medical problems, she wrote letters describing how the women were treated.

That part of her experience is a story for another day.  She spoke at the August meeting of WCD about something else she learned from her prison experience.  She saw first hand how lucrative prisons are.

If you’re unlucky enough to need to call information from your cell phone, the phone company will charge you out the wazoo–$5.00 per call.  But what’s really outrageous about the way you’re getting soaked is that the operator who gives you the number you want is probably being paid 23 cents an hour.  And she doesn’t even live in India.  Chances are, she’s in Texas.  In prison.  If she’s been at the job a long time, she might double her salary and earn 46 cents an hour.  Some racket, huh?

And it’s not the only one.  Some prisoners make auto parts, for instance.  Others make Levi jeans.  Corporations like Target and Microsoft contract for prisoners to manufacture goods for them.  One hundred percent of military clothing, including flak jackets, is made in prisons at similar bargain sub-sub-basement prices.  Count on it, though, that the military clothing is sold to the Pentagon at premium prices–maybe via Halliburton? 

Figure out the profit margin for yourself on the phone call arrangement, and you’ll find it easy to believe that in 2000, lobbyists contributed over a million dollars to representatives in Southern states.  That’s where the bulk of privately run prisons are located. 

This prison industrial complex gets the extra break, besides cheap labor, of being spared health care expenses.  This is a way to undermine unions without having to worry about strikers with signs out front.

This form of corporate welfare is so profitable that businessmen are intent on expanding it.  All they need to do so is … more prisoners.  The U.S. already imprisons more people than any other country–more even than China, which has four times our population.  We have five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners.  And in the last ten years, the women’s  prison population has quadrupled–not because women are worse behaved, of course, but because they make good slave workers.

In fact, this kind of privatized prison arrangement was abolished in the U.S. at the turn of the nineteenth century because it was considered to be human slavery.  But now it is roaring back with a vengeance.  Private companies sometimes build prisons without even having any contracts, knowing that states will send prisoners and corporations will use the labor.

I haven’t shopped at Wal-Mart for years, and now I’m disgusted with Target.  Is there anyplace to buy some cheap Charmin without rewarding slave traders?