The Wages of Crime in Montana

William Plank
Montana State University-Billings

"You Americans have to realize that you cannot bomb everybody," one of my colleagues from eastern Europe remarked to me the other day. He might well have said, "You Americans have to realize you cannot lock everybody up," for that is just what we are doing. We have about 1,800,000 people behind bars, more than any other country in the world, probably half a million more than communist China, which has four times our population. We have built a thousand new jails and prisons in the USA in the last twenty years.

Imprisonment means the failure of public education because 70% of prisoners are illiterate. Sixty to eighty percent suffer from substance abuse, 200,000 are seriously mentally ill, and drug treatment is available to one in ten who need it. At present, in Montana, the legislature is going to have to decide whether it wants to educate people or lock them up and the confrontation between prison and education K-through-Ph.D. will take place in Helena. The prison industry will probably win because of the well-paid lobbyists of the "'Prison-Industrial Complex," who can out-argue the Commissioner of Higher Education and the Board of Regents, and because of the attitude of some public figures, one of whom was reported in the local press as having said: "Why spend money on education? The people we pay to have educated cannot find jobs in Montana, so they leave the state and we lose their tax money." The message is clear: Keep them dumb and they'll have to stay in Montana.

The "Prison-Industrial Complex" is the name given by Eric Schlosser to the private prison corporations in his article in the December 1998 Atlantic Monthly. This article should be required reading for any legislator who will make any decision or cast any vote affecting the funding of education versus the prison system. The outlook for education is grim indeed,

Politicians have made or supported their careers by pushing prisons, both private and public, and that includes Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives: Nelson Rockefeller, Mario Cuomo, Lamar Alexander, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton. The private prison is a moneymaker and the private prison companies are the fastest growing part of the prison-industrial complex. There are now private prisons in about forty-two states. What politician can resist being tough on crime and a champion of private enterprise at the same time? What could be more American?

Texas, as Montanans know, has gone on a spree of building private prisons--the third largest Hawaiian prison is in Texas. "Bed-brokers" find spots for prisoners and "recruit" them for a fee. Now the prison-industrial complex is hitting Montana. It typically looks for an impoverished town, and there are lots of them in Montana, where people with little education need jobs. "Correctional officers in these private prisons usually earn lower wages than officers employed by state governments, while receiving fewer benefits and no pensions. The managers and administrators, however, earn much more than their counterparts in the public sector" (Schlosser 65).

When it pays to incarcerate people, more and more people get locked up. Thus, while the proportion of violent offenders has declined, those non-violent criminals are filling the cells. Crime pays! By 1995, less than a third of prisoners had been convicted of a violent crime. "The lure of big money is corrupting the nation's criminal-justice system, replacing notions of public service with a drive for higher profits. The eagerness of elected officials to pass tough-on-crime legislation--combined with their unwillingness to disclose true costs of these laws--has encouraged all sorts of financial improprieties!" (55)

Men of application and good will, wrote the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, have allowed the concept of punishment to develop into a model for rationality, a paradigm, a social goal, a metaphysic. "Indeed, they have gone so far in their madness as to demand that we feel our very existence to be a punishment-it is as though the education of the human race had hitherto been directed by the fantasies of jailers and hangmen!" (Daybreak 1:13)

I was driving down Hollywood Boulevard in 1959 when a motorist at a stop light asked me, "What does the 'prison made' mean, stamped on your Montana license plate?" "It just means," I explained, "that the plate was made in the state prison." But now "Prison Made" can take on a new meaning for Montanans. It can replace "Big Sky" as the social role and the national image of Montana become the State of Punishment. To me it means that the men and women of application and good will and the jailers and hangmen in Helena may very well substitute punishment for education and make the choice of sending your son to college or to jail.

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