Jonah Goldberg

I've long thought the notion of a prison-industrial complex to be laughable left-wing nonsense peddled by Marxist goofballs and other passengers in the clown car of academic identity politics.

For those who don't know, the phrase "prison-industrial complex," or PIC, is a play on the military-industrial complex. The theory behind PIC is that there are powerful forces -- capitalist, racist, etc. -- pushing to lock up as many black and brown men as they can to maintain white supremacy and line the pockets of big-prison CEOs and shareholders with profits earned not just from the taxpayer but from the toil of prison-slave labor.

Self-described "abolitionists" in the anti-PIC cause seek to get rid of prisons altogether. Indeed, they want to abolish punishment itself.

That goes for murderers, rapists and pedophiles.

"People who have seriously harmed another need appropriate forms of support, supervision and social and economic resources," explains the website for Critical Resistance, the leading outfit in the "abolitionist" cause. In other words, if Penn State's Jerry Sandusky is found guilty on all counts, he doesn't deserve prison; he deserves "support, supervision and social and economic resources."

Personally, I think that is just bat-guano crazy.

Still, the state of our prisons has become something of a scandal. We have more prisoners today than we have soldiers, and more prison guards than Marines.

Our prisons have become boot camps for criminals. That's one reason why I'm sympathetic to Peter Moskos' idea to bring back flogging. A professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Moskos argues in his book, "In Defense of Flogging," that flogging -- aka the lash -- is more humane than prison and much, much cheaper. He suggests that perpetrators of certain crimes -- petty theft, burglary, drug dealing -- be given the option of receiving one lash instead of six months in prison.

Before you shrink from the cruelty of the proposal, ask yourself which you would prefer: six lashes or three years in jail?

Moskos' motive is to reduce the size, scope and influence of prisons while keeping them around for the people who truly must be locked up: murderers, rapists, terrorists, pedophiles, etc. I might disagree with where he would set the ideal size of our prison population (I think incarceration rates have reduced crime more than he does), or how many lashes criminals should get, but he makes a compelling case, and his objective is reasonable.

But it's not an objective shared by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA). This was the outfit that essentially destroyed then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's attempt to fix the state budget.

In a state where more than two-thirds of crime is attributable to recidivism, CCPOA has spent millions of dollars lobbying against rehabilitation programs, favoring instead policies that will grow the inmate population and the ranks of prison guard unions. In 1999, it successfully killed a pilot program for alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders. In 2005, it helped kill Schwarzenegger's plan to reduce overcrowding by putting up to 20,000 inmates in a rehabilitation program. It opposes any tinkering with the "three strikes law" that might thin the prison rolls.

According to UCLA economist Lee E. Ohanian in a illuminating paper for The American, "America's Public Sector Union Dilemma," California's corrections officers have exploited their monopoly labor power to push policies that will expand the prison population and, as a result, the demand for more guards who just happen to be the best-paid corrections officers in the country. That's why, contrary to what the Marxist sages would expect, they've successfully kept privately run prisons out of the state.

Meanwhile, incarceration costs in the essentially bankrupt state are exploding. California spends $44,000 per inmate, compared with the national average of $28,000. A state prison nurse exploited overtime rules to earn $269,810 in one year.

Also contrary to left-wing expectations, these policies have been implemented not so much by the hard-hearted captains of industry and their Republican lackeys, but by a Democrat-controlled state legislature lubricated with donations from a powerful public-sector union.

The system is now up for much-needed reform thanks to a court order mandating that California fix the prison mess. Gov. Jerry Brown, whose 2010 gubernatorial campaign received more than $2 million from CCPOA, has been forced to figure something out.

Still, I suppose I owe the folks in the clown car at least a small apology. They're still nuts, but they're right about the existence of a prison-industrial complex. They were just looking in the wrong direction.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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