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Private prisons are entrenched big-profit centers in an unholy alliance with government

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During my year between college graduation and the beginning of law school, I worked at Wall Street’s Irving Trust Company as a financial auditor, as part of my plan at once to do well financially while doing no harm to society and continuing my human rights activism. I was never under no delusions that Irving Trust would be a beacon of social justice, but at least knew it was not engaging in manufacturing with mistreated workers and with accompanying pollution nor, in general, cozying up to tyrannical governments (although the company did at the time do business in Argentina when it had one of the world€’s most brutal governments).

I spoke infrequently about politics and human rights with my colleagues, but I found a hostile colleague when he learned I carried an ACLU membership card and encountered colleague guffaws from another over having confronted a Hong Kong tailor shop worker rapping a suit maker over the head with a hanger.

This was 1985-1986 in the Wall Street belly of the capitalist beast, and I was voluntarily in the midst of people wanting to make a lot of money. So did I, but I was convinced — and remain convinced — that it can be done in harmony with being socially responsible. We do see wealthy businesspeople and organizations devoted to social justice, as they define it, including George Soros, and the late Peter Lewis of Progressive Insurance (although watch what happens when a car accident victim tries to settle with one insured by Progressive and other auto insurers) with his funding marijuana legalization efforts. We see Benneton’s social justice campaigns, although I ask whether Benetton is able to avoid using underpaid manufacturing labor and still remain sufficiently competitive. We also see plenty of large corporate law firms, at least in Washington, D.C., at least before the last recession hit, devoting invaluable and high quality pro bono service of all types, which benefits both their pro bono clients and the firms’ efforts to give younger lawyers job satisfaction and experience that will serve the firms’ paying clients.

We need a quickly snowballing trend towards voluntarily enlightened and socially responsible companies and organizations, and to replace the corporate investment portfolio managers and corporate decision makers who consider nothing about social justice and social responsibility other than what the law forbids and what might cause profit loss from public outcries over polluting the environment, mistreating overseas labor, kowtowing to China and other brutal governments, inserting GMO’s and other harmful substances in our food and medicine, and the list goes on.

Today, I address the unholy alliance between governments in the United States and private jailing and security companies. This is huge business, beyond mere incarceration, that wins stock investors like flies to honey. Congratulations and thanks to the well-organized Columbia University students who ultimately convinced the university to divest from such companies (Corrections Corporation of America and G4S, but how much will that divestment lead other organizations to do the same?

The public relations spin doctors for these for-profit incarcerators can oversimplistically proclaim at the top of their lungs that they are keeping our communities safe. However, America’s very incarceration system is unjust, starting with this nation being the world’s leading incarcerator (see here, too), hiding behind the veneer of claims that American is a great and open democracy and bastion of liberty. The ready availability of so many jails and prisons makes government officials, prosecutors and judges all the more willing to warehouse people there. With fewer jails and prisons, the governments will need to find alternatives to such mass incarceration, including by simply shrinking (and concomitantly more easily balancing runaway government budgets) the criminal justice system by legalizing marijuana, prostitution and gambling; heavily decriminalizing all other drugs; eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing; and eliminating per se culpability rules for getting convictions and mandatory minimum jailing in drunk driving cases?

And how much money do these private incarceration companies pour into the election campaign coffers of the very politicians who push to maintain and even expand our over-incarcerated society?