The Universal Notebook: Privatizing the public domain

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The good thing about having Republicans in control of Augusta for the first time since 1974 is that all Maine citizens will get a chance to see for themselves what some of us have known all along – Republicans primarily represent the interests of business.

Oh, Republicans mean business all right. We’ve seen that in Gov. Paul LePage’s barnstorming Red Tape Audit tour. Anything a businessman complained about showed up virtually the next day on the governor’s regulatory reform package as a candidate for elimination. Never mind the social or environmental consequences, if it’s not good for business, it’s got to go.

While the Republicans are busy trying to roll back environmental and consumer protections on behalf of existing businesses, they are also preparing to roll out a host of initiatives to facilitate the creation of new and nefarious businesses.

Up in Milo, for example, the Corrections Corp. of America, seeing friendly faces in Augusta for the first time since the private prison company was created in 1983, has dusted off a proposal to build a $100 million to $150 million prison to house 2,000 inmates and employ 200 to 300 people. I don’t know about you, but the idea of a prison as an economic development tool gives me a sick feeling.

The rate of incarceration in the United States (750 per 100,000) is a national disgrace. Maine, to its credit, has the lowest incarceration rate in the country (150 per 100,000, roughly equivalent to England’s). Let’s keep it that way.

Though LePage has said he would only support housing out-of-state prisoners in for-profit prisons, privatizing prisons risks inviting the Arizona Syndrome – passing tough immigration laws in order to keep Corrections Corp. of America cells full. His recent proposal to cut immigrants off Maine welfare rolls until they have lived here for five years suggests to me that he also be open to something like Arizona’s draconian SB 1070.

Half of the 2.3 million people imprisoned in America are there for nonviolent offenses, so if we have a shortage of prison beds in this country, the obvious solution would be to free a million nonviolent offenders, adopt alternate sentencing systems and stop putting people in jail for drug possession.

As a matter of public policy, we should build prisons reluctantly and then only to protect the public and reform the offenders. The idea that we would build a prison to make money and provide jobs is a nauseating perversion of intent. You only invite corruption when your primary motivation is to fill prison cells.

Proposing to privatize everything from prisons, public education and national defense to Medicare and Social Security is all Le Rage among conservatives these days. But the environment, education, defense, health care, welfare, and the penal system are public interests too important to be left to the fickle fiscal fate of free market competition, in which cheaper is usually mistaken for better.

We should reject the very idea that government should be run more like a business. Government isn’t a business. Schools aren’t businesses. Neither are prisons. But that, of course, means rejecting most of what the Republican Party stands for these days.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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