cover image The Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profit from Crime

The Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profit from Crime

Joel Dyer. Basic Books, $26 (336pp) ISBN 978-0-8133-3507-0

This is a disturbing treatise on an Orwellian component of contemporary capitalism: the free-market takeover of the American corrections system. In the 1980s, Dyer argues, we were told that prison spending had to go up because the crime rate was going up. In the '90s, we've been told we have to spend more on prisons because the crime rate is going down, i.e., spending money works. Those with vested interests, he says, have further told the public that privatized prisons are tax-efficient boons to deindustrialized areas. Dyer provides a plausible argument that violent crime rates over the last 20 years have not fluctuated as dramatically (either up or down) as FBI statistics indicate, and that the bulk of the growth of the prison system is disproportionate to the change in the crime rate. Disproportionately growing numbers of prisoners have been nonviolent criminals, usually caught up in the war on drugs. One of Dyer's innovative observations is the ""prisonization"" effect: that the extreme brutality of our prison culture virtually guarantees recidivism. This is exacerbated, he argues, by prison privatization: referring to various incidents in the prisons in Colorado, Texas, New Jersey and elsewhere run by Correction Corporation of America and by Wackenhut, Dyer (Harvest of Rage) documents how the cost-cutting drive to please shareholders quickly results in negligence, danger, violence, escapes and a general air of brutalization (he finds particularly heinous the policy of randomly mixing violent and nonviolent offenders). Thus, prison has ""hidden costs"" to society, which Dyer illuminates. He notes that, because of the growing reliance of the ""prison boom"" on corporations with a bottom-line mentality, it will soon be too late to turn back the policies of extreme incarceration. Dyer supplements meticulous research with argumentative anger and verve to make a strong case that what has been called the ""prison-industrial complex"" is preying on largely minority and underclass segments of our society. (Jan.)