When Reagan stepped foot in the White House, he said the job of the government was not just to ignore a surplus of workers, but to figure out ways to make a buck off of them. Reagan lived by the notion that profit was king. If America’s businesspeople always and only did whatever made them the most money, that would magically cure all ills with supply-side fairy dust.
He fundamentally changed the way that we deal with surplus workers. Instead of ignoring them, or having the government put them to work, there was now a third option.
Make a profit off of them.
There are a variety of ways capitalists make a profit off of poor and unemployed people, from payday lenders, to “rent to own” furniture stores, to the most radical of them all: Turn them into prisoners.
That latter is the most radical, and has turned out to be the most profitable for America’s capitalists.
It’s almost elegant in its simplicity.
Turn unemployed Americans into criminals. Track them, punish them for any crime possible, take away their rights and throw them into for-profit prisons.
Once thrown inside a for-profit prison, an inmate needs food, housing, healthcare and other services. This means huge profits for capitalists. They’re raking in tens of thousands of dollars per prisoner per year – hundreds of percent more than Roosevelt paid to simply put them back to work.
And turning unemployed Americans into very profitable prisoners is a booming business.
From the beginning of America until 1980, the incarceration rate in America remained fairly steady. While Nixon declaring his war on drugs in 1971 did slightly increase incarceration in the United States, the increase was nothing drastic.
But then Reagan came to Washington, and his buddies realized they could make a buck off of unemployed Americans.
The nation’s incarceration rate took off like a rocket.
Thanks to Reagan elevating profit to a religion, between 1980 and 2009, the state and federal prison population in the U.S. increased by over 700 percent.
Since the for-profit prison industry started aggressively buying Congressmen 15 years ago, the number of people thrown into for-profit prisons has exploded.
And Americans sitting in jail make a very exploitable, very profitable, slave-like labor force.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the minimum wage for a prisoner who works in the UNICOR program, the federal government’s prison industries program, is 23 cents an hour. The maximum UNICOR wage is $1.15 an hour.
Across all state prisons, the average minimum wage for prisoners for non-industrial work is 93 cents per hour.
And some states, like Georgia and Texas, are completely upfront about their slave-labor camps. They pay absolutely nothing to prisoners.
Because the Reagan Revolution changed America’s value system, we stopped asking, “What’s the best way to deal with surplus workers?”
Instead, we started asking, “How can we make the most money off surplus workers?”
The logical answer was a return to slavery, and it has been embraced by capitalists with a vengeance.
And that is insane brutality.