Face it: Americans always turn everything into an industry, even religion. Nowhere is this truer than with poverty and prison. Both have been converted to big industries that feed big corporations.
The poor you always have with you
From the 15th century when enclosure began driving poor English farmers and peasants off the land, poverty was treated as a crime in England. As wool prices on the continent rose, more and more common land was “enclosed” or fenced off and titled to an individual, often an individual with powerful connections. Loss of the commons drove poor people off the land and sent them wandering, looking for work and subsistence.
But nobody wanted hordes of wandering poor and beggars camping in his backyard. From the Vagabond Act of 1495 forward English law treated poverty as a crime. More, the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII severely reduced sources of care for the poor. By 1527 vagabonds were punished by being bored through the ear for the first offense and hanged if they were persistent beggars.
The brutality and ineffectiveness of these measures gave birth to a system of local poor houses or “workhouses.” In these institutions paupers could find work and shelter, and while not pleasant, at least the poor wouldn’t starve or be hanged for begging.
In the United States this tradition was continued in poor farms. Counties and sometimes municipalities provided a place where the needy, homeless, disabled, or elderly were supported at public expense. Most of them were farms that produced at least some of the food the inmates needed. Perhaps poor farms weren’t an ideal solution, but at least the system conferred on the poor the dignity of partially supporting themselves, and on the government relief from the full cost of poor relief. Better yet, it was a local system, run by local people, for the local poor, and close to self-supporting. (I can still remember as a small child hearing my mother worry that “We’re all going to end up in the poorhouse,” probably ve years after the last poorhouse had disappeared – not that we were ever in that danger anyway, but she was a child of the Depression and could never escape that fear.)
All that disappeared by 1950, after the federal government took over poor relief. Over the years this has blossomed into a full blown national industry, complete with “activists” and “advocates for the poor,” most of whom share with the poor only their desire not to be poor, and sport big salaries to prove it. There’s profit in poverty.
In the hands of the federal government, poor relief has become an industry that ultimately supports big business. While food stamps may seem to demonstrate charity to the poor, they are also charity to Big Ag, helping to ensure that Big Ag’s surpluses are consumed.
Despite all the rhetoric, federal welfare has become permanent, supporting not only the poor, but the vast horde of administrators, social workers, family courts, juvenile authorities and other workers in the colossal poverty and drug rehabilitation industry. And — no surprise — the more welfare the federal government offers, the more welfare rolls bulge. The more subsidies the federal government offers to unwed mothers, the more children they have. The more welfare government offers, the fewer welfare recipients who eventually go to work. And why not? Why would anyone take a $7.50 an hour job flipping burgers when he can collect welfare and without working wind up with more net dollars in his pocket?
Thus the poor become permanently poor, and all the rehabilitation and education projects to end poverty only multiply the poor’s numbers. In 1964 President Lyndon “Landslide” Johnson declared the War on Poverty. Even though Johnson had power to raise the dead when voting time came, he was powerless against poverty. By 1996 President Bill Clinton was prepared to declare the War on Poverty lost with the passage of the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act.” Clinton claimed that it “ended welfare as we know it.” Maybe so, but it certainly didn’t end the federal programs spawned to support the welfare system. Those we have always with us.
In America, an organization always becomes an organism, and an organism fights to survive. Thus the Poverty Industry, all the government social workers, case workers, and administrators, big business beneficiaries, and non-governmental activists and advocates battle ceaselessly to ward off any attempts to reduce their numbers or reform the system, exactly as white blood cells rush to the infection site in any living organism.
Truth is, as Jesus said, “The poor ye have always with you.” In this fallen world, some people fall behind. They’re not criminals, and they’re not angels: they’re simply poor. Maybe it’s their own fault, maybe it’s the fault of circumstances, but whether merely temporarily impecunious, or ignorant, or elderly, or disabled, they have a just claim on our charity. Notice I didn’t say, “on our tax dollars,” because if the history of the poverty industry and the treatment of the poor in England and America over the last 500 years prove anything, it is that charity for the poor is too important to be trusted to government.
The poverty industry can only produce one thing: more poverty.
The prison industry
Once upon a time there was crime, punishment and forgiveness, but no more. Now there are only “stools of everlasting repentance.”
For most of history, imprisonment was only temporary and not a punishment. Inmates there awaited either corporal (bodily) or capital punishment. Once the body was punished by fining or whipping or time in the stocks, it was released. The criminal was punished and, having paid his debt, forgiven. Punishment had an end.
There were also cruel forms of punishment, branding on the face, slitting nostrils, cutting off or cropping ears. In England from about 1600 until 1868 prisoners were also punished by exile or transportation, that is, being sent to penal colonies like Georgia (under a seven year servant’s indenture) or to Australia. Some were even sold as slaves in America. Once there, however, most convicts eventually became free to establish new lives.
In England there were also debtor’s prisons, where creditors could imprison their debtors until they paid up. Clearly, this wasn’t the brightest solution, merely a means of extorting payment out of the prisoner. Since he was imprisoned, of course, he could not himself earn any money to pay his debt, and so must beg friends and relatives to pay his debt and free him. Worse yet, he had to pay for his own upkeep. In England debtor’s prisons were abolished in 1868, in U.S. states between 1821 and 1849.
Well, that’s not just exactly accurate, as we’ll see.
A new idea: penitentiaries
Beginning in soft-brains in Britain in the 19th century’s first half the idea of “penitentiaries” arose. This was the then-revolutionary notion that criminals should be incarcerated as punishment. Locking them into a monastic environment, living alone in a “cell,” under strict control and regimentation, would somehow bring them to repentance and rehabilitate them.
Of course, the penitentiary system means that outright punishment no longer pays the price of crime. Rather, a prisoner may be held until, in some person’s or some board’s opinion, he is “penitent” and thus has purged himself of guilt. Problem is, unlike outright corporal punishment or fine, penitence is in the eye of the beholder. (Prisoners may also “flatten” their sentence, it’s true, by serving out the entire time.) Punishment became indeterminate. Subjective. Unlimited.
The war on drugs: Incarceration nation
As the War on Poverty succeeded only in multiplying the poor, the War on Drugs has only multiplied prisoners.
Incarceration is a major industry in the United States. In 2012 CBS News estimated that incarceration cost taxpayers $63.4 billion a year. See http://cbsn.ws/J1I3VD. At year-end 2009, the U.S. had the highest incarceration rate in the world, 743 adults per 100,000 population (0.743%). (Russia imprisoned only 577 per 100,000.) At yearend 2010, 2,266,800 adults were in U.S. federal and state prisons and county jails.
At yearend 2009, another 4,933,677 were on probation or parole. In total, 7,225,800 adults were under probation, parole, jail, or prison, about 3.1% of all adults in the U.S. population (about 1 out of every 32 people). Whoops! I left out juveniles, of whom 70,792 were in juvenile detention in 2010.
U.S. prison population has quadrupled since 1980. That’s a lot of meals served in prison every day. A lot of uniforms. A lot of buildings to be built, and bond issues floated to pay for them. A lot of guards and administrators and watchers to hire. A lot of money to be made. It’s an industry.
Most of those incarcerated are not violent offenders, as violent crime declined in the U.S. from 1980 to 2003. Rather, mandatory minimum sentences, three strikes laws, and reductions in parole and early release are partly responsible. About 75% of prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent crimes, primarily drugs. The War on Drugs has increased the numbers of drug offenders in prison twelve times since 1980.
With the rise in prisoners has come the growth of the prison industry. Private companies like Corrections Corporation of America have sprung up to take overflow prisoners off states’ hands. CCA’s revenues have expanded more than five-fold since the mid-1990s. And since CCA must do business with state governments, it’s no surprise that many far-sighted elected officials long ago invested in CCA, but of course without any conflict of interest. This is America, after all.
Have you noticed the proliferation of new country “justice centers”? Translated from government-speak, that means “county jails,” and they cost tens of millions to construct. Whoops, that requires a bond issue, with big commissions for the house that floats the bonds, and big contracts for construction companies. Counties build them hoping to cash in on holding state prisoners – at a profit. Yearly cost to house a prisoner ranges from $31,300 a year in the less expensive states, to $50,000 – $60,000 a year in New York, Connecticut, or Washington. See http:// cbsn.ws/J1I3VD. Seems to me it would be less expensive just to buy the criminals off.)
And the new jails may be state of the art, but the art is inhuman. Forget the conservative myth that these inmates are living in the lap of luxury, sucking margaritas and playing golf. I know of one county jail built within the last five years at a cost of $20 million, yet it has no windows and no exercise yard. For exercise prisoners are furnished an oddly shaped room, two stories high, of concrete and concrete blocks, with tiny windows near the ceiling. No exercise equipment, not even a basketball. And certainly, no sunshine.
Think about that. No sunshine. Never getting to see the sky or the sun. Never feeling the sun on your face, and never mind the Vitamin D deficiency the absences of sunlight causes, or the ensuing health and depression problems.
Try this experiment. Lock yourself in a large closet this morning. Sure, you’ve got a light and a TV set. Put somebody else in the closet with you, and add a deck of cards. Throw in some trashy paperbacks, half torn apart. Add somebody watching you constantly.
That is life in a county jail, 24 hours a day.
In the same county jail, whatever they feed prisoners contains only empty calories. They lose weight eating it, dozens of pounds. Oh, and did I mention that health care for inmates doesn’t quite reach top notch?
The probation squirrel cage
Then there is the probation squirrel cage. Prisoners are released on probation, but only on condition they pay their fines AND pay probation fees. Usually probation is administered by a private company. If they can’t pay the fines and court costs, or the probation fees, their probation is revoked and they return to jail. Of course, if they turn up hot on a drug test or get arrested for any infraction, they are also revoked. In one county I know of, 95% of inmates are revoked before they finish their probation, some nearly at the end of their sentences and returned to complete their entire jail time. Now maybe this isn’t “debtor’s prison,” but if not I can’t name it.
Don’t forget the “deadbeat dads.” Those laws create debtor’s prisons for men who can’t make their child support payments. Pray explain to me how throwing them in prison will enable them to earn the money to pay the child support.
There is punishment, but mindless, and forever without forgiveness, stools of everlasting repentance, until the entire system becomes as loony and meaningless as a Salvador Dali painting.
Maybe there exists a crueler and more inhuman punishment than locking a human being in a room and leaving him there idle for months and years, but I don’t know it. However badly they deserve punishment, however stupidly they behave, they are still human beings. Go to jail and you’ll understand. As the saying goes, a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged, and a liberal is a conservative who’s been put in jail.
Let’s not get silly sentimental here. Lots of people in prison richly deserve to be there. Some few ought never be released, for the safety of mankind, because they are evil clean to the bone. But most of those imprisoned are simply feckless ne’er-do-wells. They bounce in and out of jail because they can’t stay away from beer or dope, or, if they’re really ambitious, they are trafficking in drugs. Keeping them in jail does them not a particle of good, and if any are “rehabilitated” — measured by staying out of jail and leading a productive, quiet life — it must be a vanishingly small percentage.
Most rehabilitation programs consist of urging the inmates to “do bettah.” Talk about useless. If they could “do bettah” they’d never have landed in jail in the first place. Rather, to change they need a spiritual change, a new heart, but of course government programs will never take that approach, the only one that will surely work.
For all the government claims about rehabilitation programs, most of them fail. Oh, their “culinary arts” programs may land jobs for a few inmates as cooks, but more than half of them will simply re-cycle right back into the slammer. Once released, they can’t get a job because nobody will hire them because they just got out of jail, but if they can’t pay for their probation, they go back to jail.
Grinding the meat
The present justice system works exactly like one of those old fashioned meat grinders your mama used to clamp to the table’s edge, with this difference: into one end you put human beings, and when you turn the crank out the other end comes money for the prison industry – the courts, the bailiffs, the builders, the bond-floaters, the administrators, the guards, the private prison companies and private probation companies — and shredded human beings.
How do I know? I’ve been to jail. I’ve been watching and experiencing the system from the inside out since 1991.
Ask any defense attorney in your town, and be braced for his reply.
What’s the answer? Whatever it is, it can’t be crueler or less productive than the present system. Maybe the old county penal farms, where prisoners had to work and support themselves were too mean. Maybe working on the roadside picking up trash is too cruel, although I’ll take rain and sunshine to concrete block walls any day. Maybe corporal punishment was harsh, but at least it paid a final price. Today’s prison industry only creates eternal inmates.
Used by permission. Subscribe to the Moneychanger’s daily commentary by dropping your email address at Franklin’s website, the-moneychanger.com. Franklin Sanders is publisher of The Moneychanger, a privately circulated monthly newsletter that focuses on gold and silver and the application of Christianity to economics, culture and family life. We have subscribed to this newsletter for more than 20 years, and consider it a must read. F$149 a year. Franklin is an active trader in gold and silver (he’ll swap your green Federal Reserve rectangles and give you real money in return). He trades with savers and investors outside Tennessee. F. Sanders, The Moneychanger, P.O. Box 178, Westpoint, Tenn. 38486 Tel. 888-218-9226.