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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”


Concentration Camp Economics
by Ronald A. Young

The Touchstone, Vol. XI, No. 1, Feb./Mar. 2001

A socioeconomic system that has grown dependent upon the imprisonment of millions of people. Sounds familiar, you say? No, this isn't about some dusty historical factoid concerning former Nazi or Stalinist regimes of the past. This system is operating as part of the neoliberal economic model right here in the United States. Today! Actually it can more accurately be described as the neo-fascist model. Make no mistake about it, the concentration camps and slave industries are sprouting up like weeds all across America.

The fast-paced growth of the U.S. prison industry, with its exorbitant incarceration rates, was originally advertised to the people as a necessary part of the "get tough on crime" movement. Though the public's fear of crime and violence has been stoked to inflammatory proportions as part of the sales campaign, the reality today is that what has become known as the prison/ industrial complex has more to do with the economic vitality of communities than it has with criminal justice. Attacking America's lust for prison construction by arguing over the logic of imprisonment, as opposed to other methods of dealing with criminality, is by itself doomed to failure under present conditions. It is this neofascist economic engine which increasingly propels the prison business, and that is what we must confront in order to reverse this madness.

Perhaps madness is a misnomer for what is occurring in the United States. Calculated cunning might be a more apt description. What has become obvious is that the prison/ industrial complex is now an integral component of the new capitalist service economy. A new socioeconomic paradigm has emerged that places the community prison at the center of economic activity in an increasing number of localities nation-wide. It's no coincidence that the explosive growth of the prison industry has paralleled the decline of the industrial sector in America.


American society is ominously taking on characteristics similar to those made most popular by the German Third Reich over sixty years ago. Concentration camps, slave labor industries, and mass executions were not simply the maniacal machinations of one Adolph Hitler. The Holocaust and the system that brought it forth were conceived as part of a sophisticated plan to rid the country of "undesirables" while at the same time deriving economic benefit from them. It was meticulously thought out by the German intelligentsia and implemented with the cooperation of the capitalist class and blessings of many of the people. All those monstrous acts perpetrated by the Nazis took place in one of the most "civilized" and well-educated societies on earth. A present day society of supposedly civilized and well-educated people has chosen to embark on a similar journey to the depths of inhumanity. That society has a name -- AMERICA! If you want to know how a fascist regime such as the Nazis gains legitimacy in what might otherwise be considered a sane society, just keep your eyes focused on the unfolding American political atmosphere as it expands out across the land like a toxic cloud. And if you want to see how a society can quickly tumble into the dark abyss of genocidal horror, then pay attention to that reflection you see of yourself in the mirror my fellow Americans.

The United States hasn't arrived at the Fourth Reich -- yet. But the master class is gradually bringing together the master plan of the prison/industrial complex; no, the prison/ industrial society, with its concomitant supply of scapegoats to fill the cages and slave in the factories. The burgeoning prison industry currently exploits the hapless souls caught up in its web in two major ways: the prisoner as slave and the prisoner as commodity. While exploitation of prison slave labor is on the rise, at this juncture in time the use of prisoners as free market commodities has been the driving force of prison industry expansion. Witness the appearance and explosive growth of corporate for-profit prisons with their warehouse mentality as evidence of this insidious form of consumerism. Touching briefly on the prisoner as slave, some leading American economists have come on board in support of exploiting prison slaves. The May 20, 1999 edition of The Wall Street Journal carried an article by Darren McDermott entitled "Economists Join Debate On Prison Work." In it, Harvard economist Richard Freeman said, "Right now [with the low unemployment rate] would be a great time to increase prison labor," from a worker-shortage point of view. The same article quotes Texas A&M University economist Morgan 0. Reynolds as saying, "From an economic standpoint, competition between the prison sector and the private sector is good. Production by prisoners creates rather than destroys jobs." According to Morgan, prison slave industries will require raw materials and transport by free world workers. Thus, the prisoner as slave will have a "multiplier effect" on the economy.

Though corporate privatization is making huge inroads into the prison business, the majority of prison construction and operation still remains in the public sector. A good example of how the prisoner as commodity fuels economic development of small communities can be found in the rural West Texas town of Post. The cereal magnate C. W. Post began building the town in 1907 in the middle of the semi-arid badlands of Garza County. It never developed much beyond its current population of approximately 4,000. Postex Cotton Mills began operation there in 1913 with 250 employees and became the town's largest employer. Dreams of Post hitting the big-time were dashed when it lost out on a bid in 1916 to become the site for Texas Tech University (known as Texas Technological College at the time). That honor went to the then small town of Lubbock 50 miles to the northwest.

In 1955, Burlington Industries bought the town's Postex Cotton Mills which eventually expanded to employ 450 workers at its height of operation in 1973. But in the early 1980s Burlington followed other corporations who were moving their operations overseas in pursuit of cheaper labor and closed down the mills. The closing of the mills was a devastating economic blow to the Post community. Postex had represented stable employment in a rural area otherwise dominated by the cyclical businesses of oil, ranching and farming. Post wasn't very successful in recruiting a replacement industry for the Postex Cotton Mills until 1998 when Garza County, of which Post is the county seat, decided to enter the lucrative business of warehousing humans.

The 1,094-bed Giles W. Dalby Correctional Facility opened its cages for business in October 1999. Most of the bodies are those of federal prisoners. As you might expect, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal newspaper was all aglow with the wonderful economic news for the region that "250 full-time jobs were projected to be created at the facility." The new warden, Terry Bartlett, delivered good news to the town, saying, "We've been able to hire a good number of local folks, many of whom were looking for solid employment in Post so they could stay around home. We're real excited about bringing those job opportunities to the local community."


Post is just one example of a scenario that has become all too commonplace in hundreds of communities across America. In practically every case, little or nothing is mentioned by the local media about the human dimension of the cage occupants. And whenever they do manage to garner acknowledgement it's usually in animalistic terms. No matter the location -- north, south, east or west -- the new community prison is described in the same nonchalant manner as would be used to announce the grand opening of a new Walmart Superstore. The only difference being that whereas the local merchants often view Walmart as an adversary, they glory over the prospect of increased business that will be generated by the infusion of money from the new prison.

The argument is often posited by prison opponents, and rightly so, that the huge expenditure of revenues on prisons takes money away from educational and social programs. The reasoning goes that taxpayers should be outraged over the sacrifice of their children's education at the alter of criminal justice. What seems to be overlooked in this argument, however, is the fact that it's these same taxpayers who are clamoring for prisons to be built in their communities in order to "stabilize" the local economy. Many public school systems obtain much of their funding from local taxes, and human services are increasingly becoming the responsibility of local communities as the welfare state is dismantled. That's why what often is the case today is that prisons are seen by locals as a positive way to generate economic growth and sustain revenues for their schools and community services. Never mind that it's mostly smoke and mirrors and some taxpayers somewhere else are getting the short end of the deal. To the townspeople where the prison is located it all looks so good on paper as being the economic savior they've been praying for. Who can blame them for their blind ignorance? After all, while the prison itself may not directly contribute to increasing the local tax base, the additional payroll does provide area citizens with the means to buy new homes and all sorts of durable goods (i.e., automobiles, major appliances), along with overall increased local consumer spending. As someone once said, ignorance is bliss.

So who is ultimately responsible for the current incarceration binge? The answer is simple, we are all to blame. This sad state of affairs hasn't come about through the acts of some dark, sinister figures lurking in the shadows. The people responsible are community leaders, local businesspeople, working class taxpayers, friends, neighbors and relatives. As the saying goes, "We have seen the enemy and it is us."

Even someone as diabolical as Adolph Hitler could not implement the socioeconomic course pursued by the Nazis without first gaining the cooperation of the citizenry. As Hillary Clinton says, "It takes a village." German concentration camps became an accepted part of the local economic landscape. American communities coast-to-coast are today also becoming addicted to concentration camp economics. Prisons have become part of the grand illusion to cover-up the crisis that consumer capitalism now finds itself. With all the laudatory reports of a booming economy it comes as a shock to most people that a crisis even exists. But if all is so well in the land of the gold card, why are so many communities on the verge of collapse, grasping for whatever jobs they can manage to scavenge up, even the caging of humans?

The rock-solid stability of the prison industry is being increasingly eyed as the savior of destitute communities, both large and small. Prisons have become the economic reassurance to a society buffeted by the turbulence of global capitalism. What may surprise most people is that the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), the measure of all goods and services produced in this country, also includes money spent on building and operating the nation's prisons, as well as all the collateral goods and services derived from prison-related economic activity. Sending people to prison thus results in the GDP going up.

A report on crime and poverty in America, issued in December 1999 by the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation said, "Prisons have become our nation's substitute for effective policies on crime, drugs, mental illness, housing, poverty and unemployment of the hardest to employ." Prisoners as commodities are also used in dealing with chronic unemployment. We've already seen how prisons provide jobs to members of the community. The flip side of that equation is to cage the most resistant among the unemployed. The standard wisdom appears to be that incarcerating the unemployed is a very efficient, if not very humanitarian, way to deal with all the problems associated with their joblessness. Prisons remove the homeless and mentally ill from the streets, provide them with shelter, and offer them the opportunity as slaves to develop a work ethic.

The chronically unemployed are also seen as contributing more as prisoners toward economic growth than they otherwise would in the free world. In the free world a thousand unemployed workers have the effect of creating a handful of employment office and human services staff positions. However, a 1000-bed prison creates several hundred jobs both at the prison and in the local business community. And prison jobs, if things continue on their present course, will last into perpetuity. It's really a devilishly clever way to deal with "surplus" workers that the capitalist system has no current need of or desire to retrain. As prisoners they aren't counted in the unemployment statistics, have their activities restricted so as not to be a "problem" for authorities, provide employment for hundreds of other people, and also show up as a positive contribution to the GDP. From a capitalist socioeconomic perspective, what's not to like about it?

Most American communities seem to be tuned-out from the oppressive conditions in which prisoners exist behind the walls of these economic wonders. Local citizens either don't care, don't know, or don't care to know about the despairing state of the occupants caged in these human zoos. The prevailing mood is that they get what they deserve no matter how horrible the conditions are inside the concrete and steel tombs. When the German concentration camps were liberated toward the end of World War II, the local residents were brought to the camps to view the atrocities that had taken place. They were either emotionally overwhelmed by the horrors they witnessed, or stood in silent indifference to the fate of the poor souls forced to languish in hell on earth.

Public access to American prisons isn't much different than it was in Nazi Germany. Most of what goes on inside U.S. prisons is hidden from the prying eyes of the public. Only a select few individuals or groups are provided access to prisons, and most of the time they are restricted to seeing only what prisoncrats want them to see. Institutions are suppose to be transparent in a democratic society. Prisons, however, have been effectively closed to public scrutiny and only recently has this policy been seriously challenged.

It is time to liberate our society from concentration camp economics. To do this we must change the attitudes of a large segment of the population. The cavalier attitude with which most Americans today view prisoners is not fundamentally different from the way most Germans came to see Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and other considered "lowlifes" under Nazism. Regardless of the rationale used to subject fellow human beings to such horrors, once a society has made the determination that certain people "deserve" to be enslaved, brutalized and exterminated, it soon loses all inhibitions concerning their economic exploitation and unleashes a demonic genie that is not so easily put back in its bottle. It is this against which we as prison abolitionists must do battle if we expect to be successful in reversing the current American love affair with concentration camp economics.