MAGDZIK: When shopping breaks down

Making Magic

Sadly, it turns out you can’t have it all.

My mantra used to be “next year.” No space in my schedule to study yet another fascinating subject or a new take on an old favorite? No big deal. Next year.

As a senior, there is no more next year. This thought fluttered repeatedly into my mind as I scuttled from class to class on Monday. At some point, I’ll have to make difficult and unpleasant choices. Most of the 33 courses I am still shopping must be culled. Opportunities to study wonderful things with brilliant professors and engaging classmates will pass me by — in many cases, for good. I will have to make sacrifices, and go unsatisfied. It takes maturity to realize you can’t have it all, and especially to come to peace with that.

What a shame, then, that many of our political leaders and countrymen are unable to display that quality when it comes to everyday life outside the ivory tower. As a society, we push off hard choices, as though lower taxes and greater government services often walk hand in hand. We’ll figure it out next year.

The sooner this mentality ends, the better. One of the most egregious offenses in contemporary conservatism is the simultaneous defense of what amounts to truly absurd corporate welfare (in the guise of being “friendly to business”) and the call for elimination of waste and inefficiency in government. But you almost never really get to enjoy both.

Private corrections facilities, for instance, have seen steady growth in profits as more state-run prison systems reach capacity or states look for ways to cut costs. In the past 20 years or so, the private prison population has grown more than 15-fold. This is a cause for joy only among prison company executives, not the rest of us. Private New Jersey halfway houses recently came under increased scrutiny after an excellent spot of investigative journalism from The New York Times revealed their high rates of escape, sexual assault, drug use, gang activity and violence, among many other issues.

Now, it’s not necessarily by nature that private prisons or halfway houses are abusive. It’s conceivable that they could be run well, which might mean the New Jersey case is an outlier (though I think this is unlikely). But it is clear that private prisons’ profit motives makes employing them an extraordinarily wasteful decision on the part of state governments.

Private prisons become more profitable by maximizing prisoner-days, where one prisoner-day signifies one prisoner spending one day in prison. One of the ways they can do this is by increasing the number of prisoner-days the state wants or needs to buy. This, in turn, can be accomplished by ensuring those who are locked up are never actually rehabilitated, but merely warehoused for the amount of time the state has decreed appropriate. There is no reason for private prisons to spend money on prisoner education, counseling or other services — in fact, these would directly cut into profit margins. Upon release, many former prisoners fall into familiar patterns of violent crime, drug dependency and anti-social behavior. Small wonder — given the difficulty many of us have finding a job despite a Yale degree and lack of a criminal record, how many economic opportunities are convicts likely to find? Inevitably, they find their way back to prison, and the corrections corporations pocket more money.

Many of the conservatives lauding privatization efforts have received financial support from the industry in the course of election campaigns or have connections to them otherwise. Companies like Corrections Corporation of America employ extensive networks of lobbyists across the country, designed to push for legislation that strengthens the punitive measures of many laws while reducing opportunities for parole or early release. When the prevalence of mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws can mean the difference between the prison company CEO driving a BMW and a Maserati, why not do all you can maximize the cash cow’s milk?

Being friendly to business shouldn’t mean subjecting the goals of the state to private sector profit while failing duties to citizens. When prisons don’t rehabilitate people, the criminals they release onto the streets are more likely to harm ordinary Americans, blight our neighborhoods and destroy our sense of safety. And when we need to arrest, try and jail them again, it’s hard to see where efficiency comes into play. It’s utterly wasteful and absurd for states to pay for such a shoddy service, or for us to tolerate such subversive lobbying efforts. But because the concept of privatization is held in such high esteem by the public, we tumble on towards a dark and dismal prison state. And this is only one of many contradictions inherent in the relationship between market worship and love of good governance.

Is this an inconsistency we’re going to tackle head-on now? Or are we planning on waiting until next year?

Michael Magdzik is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at michael.magdzik@yale.edu .

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