Prison Love
George Szamuely
New York Press


Hillary Clinton’s inane remarks about the shooting of Patrick Dorismond were on a par with the rest of her inane campaign. Day after day she inflicts on us her dreary Sunday-school sermons full of vacuous pieties, and laced with a malice born of inordinate ambition. The Mayor’s actions, she warned, "have aggravated tensions in the city and have helped drive a wedge between the police and the communities they serve." Well, no, Mrs. Clinton herself had a lot to do with that. Her dishonesty and opportunism is breathtaking even by Clintonian standards. In January she asserted that Amadou Diallo had been "murdered." She was forced to beat a hasty retreat. Then she denounced the New York Police Dept. for being insufficiently diverse. Her loathsome husband chimed in with his claim that Diallo would still be alive today if he had been white. In the meantime, Loretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, is busy investigating the NYPD for possible civil rights abuses. Expect a string of indictments between now and the election.

"I reject, with all my heart, the notion that falling crime rates demand rising mistrust between communities and police," Mrs. Clinton wailed at Riverside Church the other day. "I reject the false choice between effective policing and mutual respect... It is a false choice to say we cannot cut crime and have better community relations. It is a false choice to say that we cannot have safer streets and greater trust and confidence in the police." It is outrageous that the First Lady gets away with this kind of lying. Her attacks on Giuliani are idiotic. There is nothing she can do as senator about policing in New York. But there is something she could do about America’s exploding prison population. The Clinton administration could have done something but did not. Federal sentencing guidelines mandate minimum sentences for many offenses. Many drug offenses, including possession, carry mandatory terms. What does Hillary think about that? Juveniles are tried as adults. Does she think that is right? California’s "three strikes" law, whereby a third felony conviction gets you a mandatory 25-year prison term, has been widely imitated. Should New York adopt it? America’s mad rush to shovel more and more people into prison long preceded Giuliani. Since 1970 the number of people imprisoned in the United States has quadrupled; it has trebled over the last two decades and has continued at a steady clip during the Clinton era. Today, the U.S. imprisons more people than any other country in the world save perhaps Russia. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners.

The Bill Bennetts of this world rejoice. A large prison population, they claim, is a small price to pay for safe streets. However, it is not murderers and rapists who are filling up the cells. Most of the new inmates are nonviolent offenders. Of America’s 2-million prison population, about 1.2 million (60 percent) comprise nonviolent offenders. Incidentally, one could easily eliminate all crime by locking up, say, a quarter of the population. At what point would Bennett admit that the policy had failed? When the prison population reaches four million? Five million? Ten?

As for Hillary, not only is she dishonest, she even gets her facts wrong about New York. Compared to other states, New York’s record is pretty good: the crime rate here fell despite one of the slowest growing prison populations in the country. Between 1992 and 1997, the number of people behind bars in New York went up from 61,736 to 70,026. Violent crime, on the other hand, went down by 38.6 percent and the murder rate by 54.5 percent. During the same time, California’s prison population grew by 30 percent while its violent crime rate went down a mere 23 percent, and the murder rate by 28 percent.

America’s prison population is not likely to go down anytime soon. Prisons today are big business. There is a financial incentive to incarcerate ever greater numbers of offenders–too many people would stand to lose too much money if the prison gates swung open. Prisons provide employment to a vast correctional staff. In times of recession, when prison population tends to expand even faster than usual, they will soak up the unemployed. Plus, prisoners need to be fed, clothed, provided with plumbing and telephone services. Inmate telephone calls are estimated to generate more than $1 billion a year. A lot of companies’ livelihoods depend on the prison system. A 1998 article in The Atlantic described something called a Corrections Yellow Pages that lists more than a thousand vendors. Among the items on sale were a "violent prisoner chair," made of belts and shackles attached to a metal frame, with special accessories for juveniles. There was also BOSS–a "body-orifice security scanner." Meanwhile corporations are busy constructing private prisons, which can be built faster than state prisons and are cheaper to operate. Private prisons generally use nonunion labor. Corrections staffs earn less than they would in the state sector, and receive fewer benefits and no pension.

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Archived Columns by George Szamuely from the New York Press

Prison Love

Gore's Oil

Rough Justice

Race Race

Al the Coward

Intruder Alert

McCain's Money

Haider Seek

Out of Africa

Prosecute NATO

Villain or Victim?

Intervention, Immigration, and Internment

Home-Grown Terrorism

Who Benefits?

Laws of Return

Embassy Row

Selling Snake Oil

Chinese Puzzle

That Was No Lady, That Was the Times

The Red Tide Turning?

Pat & The Pod

United Fundamentalist States

Let Them All Have Nukes!

Liar, Liar

Gangster Nations

Puerto Rico Libre – and Good Riddance

Leave China Alone

A World Safe for Kleptocracy

Proud To Be Un-American

All articles reprinted with permission from the New York Press

Moreover, prisoners today are increasingly a source of cheap labor. A number of states permit private companies to use convict labor. For the corporations this makes excellent sense: they don’t have to pay their prisoner-employees health insurance or unemployment insurance. They don’t have to worry about vacations or sick leave. If a prisoner is sick, he is immediately replaced. If a prisoner is released the prison finds a substitute. There are no unions to worry about. As for the non-incarcerated workers, they will just have to work harder for less pay so as to remain "competitive." American workers already have to compete against African and Asian sweatshops. Now they have domestic sweatshops to worry about. Prison labor is the Wall Street Journal dream come true: a flexible labor market.

Hillary and her husband have happily presided over all of this. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why liberals like her so much.

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