I just got a fundraising email from California Attorney General Kamala Harris, for whom I will almost certainly vote in the senate race this fall. She has jumped on the private prison issue with the following piece of complete nonsense:
It is morally wrong for corporations to profit off the mass incarceration of millions of people in this country.
As it happens, I think prison privatization as usually understood (contract with Wackenhut or some such outfit to just run prisons with private-sector financing, employees, etc.) was a bad idea from the get-go; many years ago Bob Leone and I wrote a chapter for the book MacDonald edited that tried to untangle the false binary choice into a structure that could support intelligent debate. Our basic take was that everything is privately produced (absent slavery) at the beginning of a production sequence, and the key question was where in a sequence of stages from there to finished product/consumer it was most useful to insert a contract (rather than employment relationships). Guess what: it turns out to be a complicated and interesting managerial analysis, generally studied under the heading of “make or buy”, and no, it isn’t settled just by comparing prices and taking low bids.
What Harris says implies that every potato on the inmates’ plates, and every brick in the building, and all the guards’ shoes, must be made by a government agency (or, I guess, donated by a nonprofit), or right there in the prison. Maybe it would not be morally wrong if all that stuff were just confiscated from farmers and manufacturers to be sure they don’t profit? Does she demand that the prison be built entirely by inmates and civil servant hardhats?
Come on, Kamala: there are plenty of reasons to demand that incarceration be a government function, not contracted out at the end stages of ‘production’, without pandering to people who think profit is an offense to the moral order. And there are plenty of morally appropriate opportunities for corporations to profit by making useful stuff and selling it to governments, including inputs to incarceration, like those bricks.