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Making profits with prisons

An alarming look at the U.S. prison system

By Leigh E. Rich

The Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profits From Crime
By Joel Dyer
Westview Press
January 2000
336 pages

Enlightening and frightening, The Perpetual Prisoner Machine, the second book by journalist and former Boulder Weekly editor Joel Dyer, unshackles the alarming truth about the profiteering nature of the American justice system.

Dyer’s treatise is sure to disturb—and likely enrage—any American citizen, as he exposes the widespread capitalistic enterprise he deems the “prison-industrial complex.” No longer are prisons built only by consent of the taxpaying public; private companies have stepped in (e.g., the Corrections Corporation of America), not to better society, but rather to profit from an ever-increasing prison population. As Dyer explains, “the United States locks up about five to seven times as many people as most other industrialized nations.”

Such a “captured” audience of consumers and the societal norms that continue to create criminals produce a tautological relationship where harsher laws lead to more convictions and, thus, amplified prison profits that in turn aid in the election of politicians who propose even more stringent rulings.

What’s more frustrating, however, is the absence of a clear scapegoat. The prison-industrial complex, which allows for the private development of prisons at taxpayers’ expense without taxpayers’ consent, has emerged from capitalistic American culture and our principal reliance on a globalized and sensationalized media. Dyer spends much of his book disentangling all of the facets of this phenomenon, which include the power of private industry, the inconsistency of politics and law, and the tabloid techniques of today’s violent, market-driven news.

By far the most interesting and disquieting chapters in The Perpetual Prisoner Machine are “Violence for Profit” and “Manufacturing Fear,” both behind-the-scenes depictions of who owns and controls American journalism—a handful of global media mega-companies and the advertisers who support them. And Dyer does not mince words: “There is only so much time and space allotted for dispensing the news; therefore, when powerful advertisers seeking to reach a larger audience influence news executives to improve ratings, which translates into airing more sensational violent stories, they do so at the expense of ‘real’ news.”

This, Dyer claims, creates a naive view about current crime levels in our country. In spite of the fact that we incarcerate more than 2 million American citizens, “ten times larger than that which existed in the United States a mere twenty-nine years ago,” crime rates have fallen below those from the 1970s. We are safer now than almost ever before (with the exception of extremely impoverished neighborhoods) and yet more money to jail individuals is continually being spent. In 1998, for example, the cost to build one maximum-security cell averaged $70,909.

But it is not just construction companies who are making money. Prisoners themselves have become a commodity as agencies that locate beds for the overflowing inmate population contract with state governments. These prison brokers often trade convicts across state lines. “For instance, when the state of Colorado wanted to find beds for 500 of its inmates in 1995, it called Dominion Management of Oklahoma. The company found an old mail warehouse equipped with bars in Texarkana, Texas. … For this placing of phone calls, the Colorado Department of Corrections agreed to pay Dominion $365,000 a year for as long as the inmates were in the Texas facility.”

The pinnacle of Dyer’s writing in The Perpetual Prisoner Machine, however, is his prodigious construction of a moving and gripping social commentary much like his first book, Harvest of Rage: Why Oklahoma City Is Only the Beginning. More academic in tone than journalistic but at times awkward, he uncovers the roles of venerated American institutions, like the media of which he is a member, in the creation of a costly and often unjust “crime war” where incarceration rarely leads to rehabilitation.

“I believe,” Dyer writes, “it is entirely accurate to say that the more prisoners whose incarceration we pay for through this diversion of funds, the more future prisoners we create.”

Rich, L. E. (2000, January 4). An alarming look at the U.S. prison system. [Review of the book The Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profits From Crime by Joel Dyer.] Rocky Mountain News.

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