Land of the Free? Not So Much!

December 2018
Alfonso Saldana

The United States boasts of being the land of the free. The national anthem even says it: "O're the land of the free..." Yet, with only five percent of world population, the United States has a whopping twenty-five percent of the world's prisoners. This is not a coincidence or evidence of a dangerous society. The high number of prisons and inmates is the direct consequence of punishment and incarceration being a lucrative business.

Slavery is alive and well in America

After the Civil War, the South was in shambles because the slaves were now free, so the southern states needed a new way to restore its economy. Many former slave states immediately exploited the 13th Amendment loophole allowing slavery and involuntary servitude to continue as a “punishment for crime." So slavery never really ended -- it was merely called by a different name. First, there was the convict leasing system. Later came the Jim Crow laws. But what really boosted the rate of mass incarceration was the introduction of the racial “War on Drugs” by President Nixon in 1971.

John Ehrlichman, Nixon's advisor, confessed that while Nixon's White House "couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black," they could get the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, then criminalize both heavily and destroy them for opposing Nixon. "Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."

The racially biased attack resulted in prison populations substantially increasing -- but that was great for private prison systems like Corrections Corporation of America. In 2015, it reported $221 million in net income thanks to “occupancy guarantees” that require states to pay a fee if they do not provide a certain number of inmates.

Corporate Greed Spoils Everything

The Prison Industrial Complex is not limited to housing inmates.  Giant corporations often offset their expenses by having prisoners manufacture their goods for pennies per hour or per day. Other leeches make a pretty penny exploiting inmates and their families. Take the case of JPay. In 2011, JPay reported a revenue of $30.4 million, an amount that tripled three years later by charging prisoners for sending e-mails. Then there are corporations coming out ahead by providing non-fresh, even maggot-infested food to inmates.

All of this is possible thanks to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization of conservative state legislators and private sector lawyers that drafts and shares model state-level legislation for distribution among state governments. Its Prison Industries Act “provides for the employment of inmate labor" for "private manufacturing of certain products.” ALEC is also responsible for some of the toughest sentencing laws which ensure this form of cheap labor is never scarce. And although its members come and go, the priority of private profit-making remains at the core of ALEC's agenda. Since its inception in 1973, ALEC has become more than just a lobbying or front group. It is a pay-to-play operation in which corporate lawyers work as equals with legislators on ‘model bills’ that benefit the corporations to the detriment of the public.

The Big Picture

Before the ratification of the 13th amendment in 1865, Nixon's War on Drugs and the consequences of ALEC’s legislative influence, prison populations and private profits were kept under control. That is in part due to the fact that prior to 1886, corporations were not seen as persons. But that all started to change after the Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Rail Road ruling of 1886. Corporations began investing money into politics with the intent of gaining more constitutional rights -- which they did! By 1971, corporations already had a firm upper hand among state legislators who, in return for hefty campaign contributions (protected as a form of free speech) handed back juicy prison contracts to private corporations.

What can you do

Learn more about mass incarceration and the disproportionate impacts it has on African-Americans by reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, The New Press (2010), a book by Michelle Alexander, a civil rights litigator. You can also support candidates that see the drug problem in America as a health issue and not a punishable crime.

And, for change that goes to the roots of our struggle for real democracy, join forces with the Move to Amend Coalition that’s tackling the core issue: corporate personhood and it's control of our governance. See the website at and sign the petition at: