Monday, January 26, 2004


Before I get off the prison theme, I've been holding this column that made an excellent point on another failing of our penal system. Governor Jeb Bush made a big deal about faith based rehabilitation recently. As Tonyaa Weathersbee points out, it means nothing if he is "fighting the one thing that would bring their rehabilitation full circle -- that one thing being the automatic restoration of their right to vote once they've completed their sentences." The 11th Circuit US Appeals Court would agree.

By a 2-1 vote, the appeals court partially reversed a summary judgment in favor of Bush, the Cabinet and the state's election supervisors by finding that there was evidence that the state's felony disenfranchisement law was designed to discriminate against black people and that the vestiges of that discrimination may still exist.

...More than 10 percent of the state's black residents who are of voting age are banned from voting because of felony convictions, while one in five black males can't vote because of a felony conviction -- even though they've fully served their sentence.

...The law also has no logical basis: No evidence exists to show that stripping felons of the right to vote deters them from committing further crimes. If anything, disenfranchisement serves as a barrier against true rehabilitation by keeping felons outside of the society instead of giving them a stake in it.

Florida is one of only four remaining states to bar first-time felons from voting unless they receive clemency. I'm sure I don't have to remind you that this law was instrumental in Jeb's brother being appointed to the presidency. I know what I think, but draw your own conclusions.

The problem is the prison system has become one more cog in the political PAC money machine. Outside of the devastating impact the 'tough-on-nonviolent drug crime" mandatory sentencing has had on state budgets, reform is stymied by the corporate complex that has grown around those laws. TalkLeft posted the definitive column of the week on America's Prison Habit.

Since 1980 the U.S. prison and jail population has quadrupled in size to more than 2 million. In the process, prisons have embedded themselves into the nation's economic and social fabric. A powerful lobby has grown up around the prison system that will fight hard to protect the status quo.

Major companies such as Wackenhut Corrections Corp. and Corrections Corp. of America employ sophisticated lobbyists to protect and expand their market share. The law enforcement technology industry, which produces high-tech items such as the latest stab-proof vests, helmets, stun guns, shields, batons and chemical agents, does more than a billion dollars a year in business.

With 2.2 million people engaged in catching criminals and putting and keeping them behind bars, "corrections" has become one of the largest sectors of the U.S. economy, employing more people than the combined workforces of General Motors, Ford and Wal-Mart, the three biggest corporate employers in the country.

Prison reform for the greater social good is not high on their agenda.

When states try to cut prison budgets, they quickly come up against powerful interests. In Mississippi in 2001, Gov. Ronnie Musgrove vetoed the state's corrections budget so he could spend more money on schools. The legislature, lobbied by Wackenhut, overrode the veto.

In fiscally distressed California, about 6 percent of the state budget goes to corrections. Yet no senior politician, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, has dared challenge the power of the 31,000-member California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which pours a third of the $22 million it collects each year in membership dues into political action committees.

I suppose this is also why the Commonwealth of Massachusetts spent more of your tax dollars on prisons than higher education this year. Doesn't sound like a good investment to me.


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