The American Government is Not a Goddamn Jobs Program


Here’s a news story that will make libertarians and feminists alike want to grab their guns and barricade the door, because the world appears to still be going to hell: a Texas sheriff’s office has been charged with running a “Rape Camp” in the county jail. I’ll let the HuffPo take it from here while I go pour myself a stiff drink:

Two women who were inmates at the jail, which is attached to the county’s quaint courthouse building, are now suing Live Oak County and guards Vincent Aguilar, Jaime Smith and Israel Charles Jr.

The lawsuit says the three guards forced the women to shave their vaginas in front of them, to perform oral sex on each other and on the guards and sometimes “to conceal [the guards’] ejaculate by way of ingestion,” the court documents state. The guards would also pin the women against the wall while verbally berating them, groping them and digitally raping them, the suit says.

The documents also say the guards told one plaintiff that she “belong[ed] to [them]” and was their “sex slave or whatever they wanted her to be.”

The guards allegedly refused to give the women food and water, and also beat them and threatened to kill them “in order to compel their compliance,” the lawsuit says. All the while, the jail allegedly failed to take appropriate measures to prevent such attacks and failed to discipline county employees for committing sexual assault. The supervisor of the jail “was a party to the assaults,” the documents state.

Two points: first, this isn’t an isolated incident. Prisoner abuse is a routine occurrence in American prisons. It seems that over the last 250 years, an informal social contract has evolved around the idea of justice, wherein we all agree that we’re basically cool with the abuse of convicted murderers, rapists, child molesters, and whoever else we find gross and scary, but please keep it behind closed doors and try not to get the wrong guy too often (the wrong guy with a job and a 401k, anyway). We think so little about this system that prison rape is HIGHlarious joke fodder, particularly for hack comedians and “edgy” sitcom writers.  But when we learn that one of the victims in the Texas case was in prison for something as benign as marijuana possession charges (which were later dropped), we may want to reexamine this ad-hoc, vaguely eye-for-an-eye notion we have of criminal justice. Agents of the state should not be treating people, not even violent criminals, this way.

Second: on its face, this is a story about the unaccountability of and rampant human rights violations within our nation’s prisons. It’s also a story about how out-of-control our institutions can get when we delegate huge amounts of power to unaccountable individuals. Unauthorized drone strikes and unchecked executive power are the most visible cases these days, but the “power corrupts” theory can apply to the cohort that missed out on the four-to-eight-year ivy-league credentialing system, too. And let’s be clear: having authority over the daily schedule, movements, and access to food and water for another individual is a huge power. We ought to be concerned ready to set fire to something whenever a government institution delegates that much power to positions (aka “jobs created”) where the only qualifications are that the applicant has a pulse and doesn’t eat human brains. President Obama at least pretends to have a secret rationale for authorizing murder-by-flying-robot, but any IRS grunt can shut you down if he or she doesn’t like what you’re saying. A TSA agent can keep you grounded if they suspect that you’re having an affair with a married person. And everybody knows somebody who’s been arrested on the charges of “contempt of cop.”

“But these are good-paying jobs with benefits,” says the public sector union representative/person who’s never been to the DMV, let alone prison. And they have a valid concern; there are reasons to be worried that the credentialed, digitally-savvy middle-upper-middle classes are pulling ahead in the economy and leaving the rest of America behind. We can debate the merit of programs like SSI, SSDI, Social Security and welfare, but they exist to help meet the material needs of citizens who truly cannot contribute productively to the system. Doling out ever more authority over our lives to unelected agents of the state, thereby raising the budget of the government and crowding out the private economy, is a piss-poor way to ensure the country’s future prosperity. And when that agent of the state, is (say) a private prison company with a vested interest in making sure America’s laws keep its cells full, we need to challenge the idea that a robust Nordic-style public sector is better for America than another Wal Mart.

The American government is not a goddamn jobs program.

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  • Tom Bulpit

    Two victims are suing the Sherrifs’ office? So a verdict has yet to be reached?

    What the hell ever happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty?’

    Until it is established in law that this happened, this is pure demagoguery.

    • AuntMerryweather

      Forgetting to include the word “alleged” in a post that’s not actually about the case in question: PURE DEMAGOGUERY.

    • Actually, that’s not true. It’s pretty clear that something has happened to these prisoners. A trial is intended to establish who did something, not necessarily whether or not it happened (although that can sometimes be the case). If it is unclear that something has actually happened, then we can refer to them as the alleged victim. However, in most cases we do refer to a person as the victim of a crime, even before the trial has been completed.

      So, for example, we refer to a victim of identity theft or of a home invasion or a murder as a victim even before a trial commences because it’s clear that something has happened to them, the trial is trying to figure out who did what to the person.

  • Noah

    “And when that agent of the state, is (say) a private prison company with a vested interest in making sure America’s laws keep its cells full, we need to challenge the idea that a robust Nordic-style public sector is better for America than another Wal Mart.”

    Do we really want a Wal-Mart of prisons? Increased profits by lower unit cost and expanding supply to reach a different equilibrium. Why not stick 40 prisoners in a 5×8 cell with no electricity, running water, or toilet? It’ll be real cheap, so the stockholders will love it. Even if private businesses somehow would have prevented absolutely corrupt assholes from hijacking the system to meet their perverse desires, like you described, I find it unlikely that private businesses would be any better equipped to deal with it. The only thing holding them in line would be (has been, in cases where private prison abuses have occurred) a fear of the cost of lawsuits, just like the state is facing now.

    If the cost of preventing the lawsuits through better oversight and training (retraining all staff and retooling management to increase employee supervision) exceeded the expected value of paying out the lawsuits, then a private company would have a strong incentive not to implement appropriate reforms before they incurred costs (resulting from damages from a lawsuit and the damage the prison workers did to their inmates). If it were a public company, such as Wackenhut, they would have a nearly-binding legal requirement to forgo the training and supervision reforms to manage their bottom-line. The only hitch might come if there were evidence that the company knew some risks existed and didn’t work to stop them, thus grounding charges of negligence, in the event of abuse. Private business with a profit motive has no incentive to provide jail services in a socially-acceptable way.

    Isn’t the privatization of prisons a generally “conservative” (read: free market/enterprise) idea? My understanding was that the privatization of prisons started at the same time that the state sold off or gave up its other monopolies under the Reagan/entrepreneurial government tide and that, in the last 30 years, this has occurred more in states dominated politically by conservative Republicans than in states dominated by Democrats. This is in sharp contrast to the state-owned and operated enterprises you referred to with “Nordic-style,” which must be a pejorative of which I must be unfamiliar.

    The Nordic style is about as far from the private model conservatives pushed in this country that, as you rightly noted, encourages private companies running prisons (poorly) to push for stricter law enforcement to fill their beds. Public prisons protect prisoners. This case presents a reprehensible counter-example. I get that prisons in general are un-libertarian. Certainly, prisoner abuses are un-libertarian, as they violate a social contract binds the state to caring for its wards (I don’t know what happens when libertarians reject the social contract, given the acceptance of state-licensed prisons and expectations of fair treatment of prisoners by the state that libertarians reject). I sense some hypocrisy, however, when conservatives hold the state-at-large, too often conveniently controlled by their opponents, accountable for the predictable results of the skewed incentives of a private prison system conservatives themselves established when they controlled government despite liberal opposition.

    Fortunately, at least for everyone involved here, it seems like these atrocities occurred in publicly-run facilities, so the public/private question is rather moot. Especially if it weren’t, though, it only seems to emphasize the importance of the public sector in providing services in a humane fashion. I don’t want to recite the “World’s most humane prisons” headlines about Norway, but I’d hope to be able to stipulate that the quality of life in Norway’s public prisons far exceeds those of American prisons, public or private. Maybe Nordic-style of punishment is not retributive enough for folks here and we are satisfied with our public prisons in the US. However, I don’t see how the public prison system in Nordic countries are examples of the public sector gone astray. Let’s be sensitive to the claims that punishment in US jails may be a bit too harsh, regardless of who’s running them, while reading a blog post about abuses of prisoners by guards. Do you earnestly think the situation would be that much better, or the outcry that much louder, if this were a private prison company, as opposed to the state? This is a particularly disgusting example of a huge issue that I am glad you raised.

    This seems to be a larger issue of private citizens abusing power given to them by employers–in this case, the state, but occurring at least as frequently in the private sector (how much money did contractors steal/bilk from the government in Iraq?). Shall we hold all employers accountable for the bad acts of their employees? As a society, we have created definitions of negligence, etc. to define categories of responsibility to mete out punishment to deter future bad acts and define and encourage socially-acceptable behavior, like overseeing employees. Like after every violation of community standards by standards enforcers, this is a time for law enforcement vis a vis law enforcement. Thanks for calling attention to injustices in the prison system.

    • Noah, given the depth to which you like to respond, I’d like to suggest to you that you start writing your own blog. It seems like you have a lot to say. You can get a free one at

  • Brendan Morse

    I do not understand the article at all because there are so many different bits and pieces of inchoately connected ideas swirling around. I understand the point about what happened in the Texas prison and in other prisons can be unacceptable. However, what does that have to do with either increasing government jobs or not? Doesn’t the government have functions that people voted for (better or worse) and they need humans to operate them? Is not a little over the top to claim that the prison system, whatever its problems, is a jobs program? Drone strikes? Disturbing the peace laws? Private prison companies? In what ways are these jobs programs? You write as if any of these were created recently to address unemployment, but I do not see a single one that was.