Behind Oz’s Curtain

by C C Reilly on July 27, 2014

in Community, Connecting the Dots, Deep Economy

Bill Thompson

Bill Thompson

Behind Oz’s Curtain of ‘Law and Order’

By C.C. Reilly

Bill Thompson: Schools not Prisons

“The [$34 million] the city wants to spend on [the Brooklyn House of Detention design] contract would be better used as a means to reduce class sizes and build more schools.”
NYC Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr.
November 19, 2009

I.                    Introduction

On November 19, 2009, Comptroller of the City of New York Bill Thompson publicly stated he would not register a “flawed and wasteful” $34 million design contract at the Brooklyn House of Detention.  This was the third try by Mayor Bloomberg’s Office of Contracts to register the contract that still lacked, inter alia, required signatures, supporting documentation for the “full scope of work”, cost or price analyses, and “fail[ed] to follow the law and obtain public participation.”

Thompson’s refusal to route millions of taxpayer dollars to the Mayor’s faulty and spurious prison contract is close on the heels of the California State bankruptcy proceeding, in which Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger was ordered to depopulate California prisons by 40,000 prisoners in short order.  Californians who did the math discovered that their governor was spending more taxpayers’ money on prisons than on schools.  Instead of investing in the education of California’s children, taxpayer money was disappearing into the coffers of private prison owners and their investors.

The last quarter of the 20th Century saw America’s prison population suddenly  grow from roughly 100 sentenced prisoners for every 100,000 U.S. residents in 1974 to almost 450 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 in 1997 – a 450% upward change, accompanied by new prison construction across the United States.  Under Reagan/Bush privatization policies, prisons became an industry complete with Wall Street investors.  What happened?  What brought Comptroller Bill Thompson, an on the level guy here in New York City, and the People of California to the point of comparing the value of schools versus the value of prisons?  Of all the cost-cutting measures that could have been ordered, why did California Jurists order Gov. Schwartzenegger to depopulate California’s prisons?  Let’s take a look behind Oz’s curtain of ‘Law and Order.’

II.                Background

a.      Codification of the Boom

It is well documented that since the mid-1970s there has been a boom in the American incarceration rate accompanied by a boom in prison construction.  Social scientists have been active in analyzing the whys and wherefores of this phenomena.  Caplow & Simon (1999) compared and broadened colleagues’ analyses that increasing crime rates were causing the building boom, arguing that such issues as government crime control, consequences of the War on Drugs, and reflexivity of the penal system, must be considered.

Caplow’s (1999) insistence that “[f]or college classrooms, missiles, asylums, or prisons to be produced, great numbers of people need to get involved for reasons independent of the general social sentiments that drive these trends” spurred others to look for those “reasons independent” underlying the incarceration and prison boom.  A.L. Schneider (2006), using path dependence /punctuated equilibrium methods to look at crime policy design, points to the most basic and underlying behavior accounting for all the phenomena that the prior studies identified and she was able to codify an “unseen hand” modifying the normal social processes, concurrent with and continuing after the election of President Ronald Reagan.

b.      The Prison Industry: ‘Follow the Money’

By 2004 the existence of a “prison industry” could not be ignored.  Hooks, Mosher, Rotulo, Lobao (2004) sought to create a database on prisons across the United States which now looked at carceral expansion as it related to employment.  Their analysis that prison construction would slow and decrease economic development of the community that housed it flew in the face of contemporary sales pitches to rural towns seeking prison construction as a panacea to their poverty.  In their 2007 study, Welch and Turner “follow the money” generated by the prison industry to the heavy-duty lists of financiers and institutional investors quite reminiscent of the lists generated decades ago of those who invested in South African industry.

c.       Tampering with U.S. Census data

At the same time, Hamsher (2005), citing pioneering work by Peter Wagner, Esq. (, proffered a legal analysis that shed light on the flaws in U.S. Census data.  Some states were, contrary to law, interpreting the “Usual Residence Rule” for prisoners as the correctional facility in which each prisoner was housed.  The guilty states added the local prison population to their own county population and were reaping in undeserved federal funds based on the false population figures.  Reciprocally, the prisoners’ districts of usual residence – that is, where they would usually reside if they were not in prison — were denied those very funds.

III.              How it works

The Prison Industry is not so different from any other industry.  For example, if you are in the pickle business, your raw material is cucumbers that you convert to pickles.  If you are in the prison business, your raw material is people that you convert to prison inmates.  Here are the basic steps.

a.      Establish a population base

Where do you get your prisoners?  You don’t want just any prisoners.  You want long-term prisoners that will provide a long-term population for your prison.  When in office, Attorney General Ashcroft did his part by ordering the federal prosecutors under him to only request maximum sentences for every case they tried.  (Never mind that this made life more than difficult for prosecutors who dealt with RICO or drug cases, where sentencing bargains would regularly be made in exchange for information or testimony from one or more of the accused.)  Ashcroft also, reportedly, had lists kept of federal jurists who sentenced convicted defendants to less than the maximum available sentences for their crimes.

During the same period “Law and Order” was the demand on many politicians’ lips.  More laws were passed with unreasonably long sentences – such as those in the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws here in New York.  Even though that type of deterrence sentencing proved not to result in deterrence from crime, clearly deterrence was not the point.  The national focus was changed from the concept of corrections to the concept of punishment.  This change in focus played right into the requirements of the Prison Industry and stabilized the raw material population base.  Law Enforcement and Corrections just did their jobs.  Reflexivity.

b.      Replenish the population base

After awhile the prisoner population began to maintain itself.  Paroled prisoners would be returned to prison the minute they breached parole.  In addition, those who received sentences of probation and had never seen the inside of a prison were now being imprisoned upon supposed breaches of probation – even if being imprisoned had never been part of their original sentence. (Caplow and Simon, 1999)

c.        Grow the population base to increase profits

A reasonable person might wonder how it is possible to grow a prison population, when the prison population is comprised of people who have, in the normal course, been arrested, tried, and convicted of crimes.  Welch and Turner (2007, 64) offer the following:

That punitive reliance is further reinforced by lengthy and mandatory minimum sentences that ensure profitability since long-term occupancy in prison translates into a handsome financial per diem.  In a trade publication geared toward investors, the Cabot Market Letter compared a private corrections facility (CCA) to “a hotel that’s always 100% occupancy…and booked to the end of the century.” (Bates, 1998 13):

* * *

 In a third-quarter conference call, Steve Logan, the CEO of Cornell Companies – the third largest private prison firm – notes:

I think it’s clear that since September 11 there’s a heightened focus on detention…. More people are gonna get caught.  So I would say that’s positive…. The other thing that you’re seeing that to be honest with you I have no idea how this is going to impact us but it’s not bad – it can only be good – is with the focus on people that are illegal and also from Middle Eastern decent in the United States there are over 900,000 undocumented individuals from Middle Eastern decent.  That’s, keep in mind, that’s half of our entire prison population.  That’s a huge number, and that is a population, for lots of reasons that is being targeted.  So I would say the events of 9/11 let me back up – the federal business is the best business for us.  It’s the most consistent business for us and the events of September 11 is increasing that level of business (Not With Our Money, 2002).

IV.             Conclusion

Bill Thompson was on the money when he refused to register Mayor Bloomberg’s $34 million faulty and spurious prison design contract.  Some decades back New York City tread the line of bankruptcy – at which time relief came by placing all the City correctional facilities in the care of the State.  Neither New York City nor New York State needs to follow California down the bankruptcy path as long as we learn the lesson that it is better to investing our tax dollars in our children’s education than to pour our hard-earned cash into the pockets of prison designers, prison builders, prison owners, and their institutional investors.




Caplow, T. & Simon, J. (1999).  Understanding Prison Policy and Population Trends Crime and Justice, 26, 63-120.

Hamsher, D. (2005).  Counted Out Twice—Power, Representation & the “Usual Residence Rule” in the Enumeration of Prisoners: A State-based Approach to Correcting Flawed Census Data, The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 96, 1, 299-328.

Hooks, G., Mosher, C., Rotolo, T., & Lobao, L.  (2004)  The Prison Industry: Carceral Expansion and Employment in U.S. Counties, 1969-1994, Social Science Quarterly, 85, 1, 37-57.

Schneider, A.L.  (2006)  Patterns of Change in the Use of Imprisonment in the American States: An Integration of Path Dependence, Punctuated Equilibrium and Policy Design Approaches, Political Research Quarterly, 59, 3, 457-470.

Welch, M. & Turner, F.  (2007)  Private Corrections, Financial Infrastructure, and Transportation: The New Geo-Economy of Shipping Prisoners, Social Justice, 34, 3/4, 56-77.


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