As would be expected in the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world, the US prison-industrial complex is large and powerful. Yet, the companies that gain from the explosion in jail and prison populations over the last few decades largely remain hidden in the shadows. This week, the American Civil Liberties Union, along with The Nation and Beyond Bars, began rolling out a series of short videos titled Prison Profiteers that promises to expose the workings of the prison-industrial complex.
The first video in the series—the only video released so far—addresses phone system monopolies that charge inmates' families and friends exorbitant rates to communicate with their incarcerated loved ones. It is heartbreaking to watch nine year old Kenny Davis explain in the video that the high cost of a phone call prevents him from talking even once a week with his father, who it would take a four hour drive to visit in person.
Watch the video here.
While the video conveys the problem well, the political action suggested—the Federal Communication Commission imposing price caps on state and local jail and prison inmates' in-state calls— is problematic. While expanding the FCC power will help address the immediate problem, it takes the liberty-precarious step of strengthening the US government's bureaucracy.
The potential dangers of expanding US government control over matters historically handled by state and local governments is demonstrated by the US government's intrusion into the fields of criminal law and police policy that had historically been under state and local control. US government intrusions into these areas have contributed significantly to the growth of the incarceration rate, as well as the rise of SWAT. For just two examples, we can look to the Byrne grants and Joint Terrorism Task Forces. Byrne grants arose from the war on drugs and continue even as state and local governments increasingly defect from aspects of that war. Joint Terrorism Task Forces have seen massive growth with the rise of the war on terrorism.
Irrespective of the merit of the policy action suggested in the first Prison Profiteers video, it is heartening to see a push to inform people of the problems related to the prison-industrial complex. Hopefully, the upcoming videos in the series will provide similarly powerful introductions to other aspects of the prison-industrial complex.
Talking about short video introductions to incarceration issues, the three minute video Why is the US Prison Population so Large? featuring Loyola University New Orleans economics Professor Daniel D'Amico provides a good introduction to the decades-long growth in the number of people incarcerated in the US, with a particular focus on the role of the drug war.