Going Up the River

By Joseph T. Hallinan

Going Up the River is a travelogue-style investigation into one of America’s fastest growing industries: its prison system.

That American prisons have become such big business may come as a surprise to some. After all, haven’t violent crime rates been going down? And while there may be some disagreement over whether the proper purpose of a prison is punishment or rehabilitation, since when were these places supposed to turn a profit?

“When I began my travels,” Joseph Hallinan writes, “I had no idea of the amount of money to be made from prisons.” He soon learns. Take the example of pay phones. It is estimated that prisoners make $1 billion a year in long-distance phone calls. But since prisoners can’t choose their long-distance carrier, phone companies offer prisons legal kickbacks for access to their captive markets. As a result, a single pay phone can earn its owner $12,000 a year, and annual phone-call commissions in some states total over $20 million.

But phone bills are only a small part of the story. As Hallinan documents, prisons have become “tremendous public works projects, throwing off money as a wet dog throws off water.” It used to be that nobody wanted a prison in his or her neighbourhood. Now they are welcomed as economic boons. “Having failed to make prisons effective, we have learned to make them profitable” – not just for private prison companies, but also for the remote communities that house them.

Remote, white communities, that is. One of the more disturbing trends Hallinan looks at is the way black, urban criminals are being farmed out to rural, white prisons. Going up the river is starting to look more and more like going down the river, even to the point of having labour gangs on prison plantations overseen by “field bosses” carrying shotguns.

Prison labour has often been used to grow cash crops. But while in some places it still is, more and more it is the prisoners themselves that have become the crop that is being farmed. As Hallinan writes, “One of the ironies of prison privatization in the United States is that inmates have become valuable. Before private prisons appeared, inmates were considered worthless – or, even worse, to be liabilities. . . . Now, however, inmates are considered assets. To get them, private prison companies will pay dearly.”

Of course a prison economy needs prisoners. But where to find them? You can build all the prisons you want, but will they (the prisoners) come?

The answer to that question comes courtesy of the Cold War. The Cold War helped the United States maintain a wartime economy throughout decades of peace and prosperity. Now that the Cold War is over the U.S. military-industrial complex is having to re-invent itself. Hallinan, and he is not the first to make this observation, suggests that one way this is happening is by turning the old military industrial complex into a prison-industrial complex. And just as the Cold War kept the war economy humming, so the War on Drugs – with its harshly punitive sentencing regime – has been called into service to keep America’s prisons full.

Many critics consider the American War on Drugs to be a failure, but that depends on what the criteria for success are. The same question can be asked about the prison system itself. As a business, it has become highly profitable. Whether it has a greater function or value today is hard to say.

Review first published April 21, 2001.


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