Thursday, August 02, 2012

Private Slave Owners in America, 21st Century Edition

That's the phrase that leaps to mind when I read about Goldman Sachs' latest attempt to rehabilitate its image:

New York City, embracing an experimental mechanism for financing social services that has excited and worried government reformers around the world, will allow Goldman Sachs to invest nearly $10 million in a jail program, with the pledge that the financial services giant would profit if the program succeeded in significantly reducing recidivism rates.

The city will be the first in the United States to test “social impact bonds,” also called pay-for-success bonds, which are an effort to find new ways to finance initiatives that might save governments money over the long term.

First used in Britain and now being explored in Australia, the bonds are rapidly capturing the imagination of some public officials in the United States: on Wednesday, Massachusetts announced that it was completing negotiations with two nonprofit groups to finance juvenile justice and homelessness programs, with the promise of repayment only if the programs work.

This might bother me less if we already hadn't seen the dark side of auctioning off prisoners to private companies.

Making a profit off a human life should be anathema to any civilized society, but I'm afraid that bar was lowered to the ground long ago in America. Just look at our healthcare system pre-Obamacare. Death panels, indeed.

This program has noble aims, don't get me wrong. The idea is to have Goldman Sachs implement a program that helps inmates obtain the tools and counseling to make it in the real world once they leave. This is in the hope that there will be fewer repeat incarcerees.

I bet when the first slaves washed up on the shores of the colonies, the justifications of slave owners were just as noble. Indeed, "tame the savages" was probably right at the top of the list, just like it is in the Goldman Sachs contract.

That's not to say that there shouldn't be a rehabilitation track for inmates and incarcerees (the distinction being that Riker's is a detention center, nominally a place to await trial, but de facto, it's a prison, a place where the guilty serve time.) There should be a rehabilitative facility at Riker's and it should be fully funded, as the small investment we make now in a young man or woman can prevent a far larger expense if he or she does end up back in the prison system.

The idea that a major investment bank is making money off these same young men and women should not be just unsettling, it ought to be raising barricades around the island, the mayor's office and Goldman Sachs headquarters.

This is slavery, pure and simple.