Crime and Punishment and Corruption

Corruption within the US prison system is a well-established fact, but it’s not widely discussed. The US media seem eager to cover corruption in other prison systems, usually as a way of establishing that another country is ‘backward’ or needs significant work to be brought into the modern age. Far less ink is devoted to the coverage of corruption issues in US prisons as well as the justice system at large, which is extremely unfortunate, because it’s an issue people should be aware of, both when interacting with the system and when talking about prison issues.

Significant taxpayer dollars are spent on corruption, and corruption can also play a role in who goes to prison, for how long, and what happens there. The system is rotten from the core, and that rot has spread out through many of the systems designed to support the justice system; including systems that are supposed to be providing prisoners with tools they can use to seek employment and better opportunities when they get out. Corrupt systems can in fact trap people in the prison system, making it more difficult for them to establish new and better lives for themselves when they get out, ensuring that the revolving door keeps revolving.

On the level of prison administrators, corruption plays a role in who gets contracts for food, cleaning, guard services, and other things the prison needs to support itself. It’s not uncommon for wardens to establish a food contract at less than is billed, pocketing the excess for private purposes. Food contracts may also on paper promise things like allergy-friendly and religious meals, with the state receiving a bill for these services, while they are not actually provided to prisoners. In fact, some meal plans don’t even meet basic nutritional needs, putting prisoners at risk of health problems.

The same corruption extends to medical services, laundry, and other services when they’re outsourced rather than being managed by prisoners themselves. A long line of corruption may be involved, with each person along the way skimming a little more off the top. Investigations into corruption could uncover a substantial network, if officials bothered to ask for such investigations, which they often don’t, sometimes because they are part of that very network. Addressing corruption would also, of course, result in significant cost savings for the state.

Those programs that some prisons like to tout which are supposed to prepare prisoners for life on the outside are often wrapped in corruption as well. Some may start with the best of intentions, but prisons are a cash cow, and once people realise this, they are quick to take advantage. Opportunities to have a literally captive audience can create big bucks for companies that agree to offer things like occupational training in prisons, even if those companies don’t provide prisoners with all the tools and resources they need, like help managing their careers once they get out and face the difficulty of finding employment with a criminal background.

Prisoners themselves run their own entrepreneurial industries within the system, many of which also utilise corruption. Guards can become sources of everything from drugs to alcohol, and they use the prisoners as much as the prisoners use them, creating a complex set of interlocking dependencies and abuses. Money runs throughout, large amounts of money, in fact, and it’s fed by things like low wages and poor working conditions for guards, many of whom see corruption as a good way to earn real money while working in the prison system. And they’re well aware that they can take advantage of their ‘clients,’ because they are powerless to complain; are you going to phone up the warden and tell her the guard stole your drug money?

Running prisons is expensive, very expensive, particularly for death row prisoners. One of the reasons it is so expensive is because of corruption, which drives costs up significantly without providing any real benefits, except, of course, to the people pocketing money and favours. Whether people want to use their connections to manipulate elections or cook their books, they’re getting something out of it, and the taxpayers are footing the bill. People who want to complain about the expense of prisons and use it for an excuse to deny prisoners legal rights like the chance to appeal their sentences should look first to the costs of corruption, which are likely much higher than the expense of managing prisoners.

In the United States, many people seem to labour under the impression that corruption is not a problem, and that this is in fact further evidence of our cultural and moral superiority. People believe that corruption is a sign of a less ‘developed’ country, evidence of depravity, and that things like this do not happen in the United States, because we are above it all. Nothing could be further from the truth; corruption runs not just through the prison system but also through a number of law enforcement and government agencies. The shocking abuses revealed in the US Minerals Service in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster were only the tip of the iceberg, and will not be the last the US public sees of corruption among government officials. Including, of course, the people trusted to make and enforce regulation, as well as the people supposedly keeping prisons secure.

Rather than pretending corruption doesn’t exist, it should be brought out into the light and discussed. And so should its implications, because the extent of corruption in prisons illustrates that it is far from new, and that it is in fact very firmly rooted, further evidence that the prison system is in need of urgent comprehensive reform. Not just for human rights reasons, but for the pure and simple fact that the system as it stands is extremely expensive and unproductive to administer.