ALEC, Guns, Prisons, and the Lucrative Business of Fear

The Trayvon Martin case has brought a secretive group to national attention. "The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has traditionally been anonymous, working behind the scenes to advance a far-right agenda far from the public spotlight -- which was always the intended plan," writes Steve Benen. "Shadowy obscurity allowed ALEC to be more effective and made it easier for lawmakers to follow the group's lead without controversy."

ALEC is behind many bad ideas at the state level; ultrasound laws, attacks on Planned Parenthood funding, attacks on unions, the Republican War on Voting, and -- of course -- insanely liberal gun laws like "Stand Your Ground." The sum total of ALEC-inspired gun laws has turned states like Florida into wild west-style war zones, where one in every fifteen adults has a concealed carry permit. Needless to say, this doesn't make for the safe society that conservatives tell us it does. If you doubt that, consider how safe a gun saturated community kept Trayvon Martin.

But the purpose of all these gun laws isn't to keep anyone safe, no matter what you're told. The purpose is to create fear. Liberal gun laws are great PR for fearmongers. They pretend to decide to "finally get serious" about a problem you had no idea existed. And the reason you were ignorant of the problem is because it doesn't exist. As they do with voter ID laws and voter fraud, political hacks use a few isolated incidents to create the impression of a massive problem about to overrun the United States. First the argument is that the only way to protect yourself is to get a gun, then it's that liberals are too strict about how you use that gun. Finally, it reaches the absurd level of "Stand Your Ground," which -- when all is said and done -- allows you to shoot anyone you're afraid of.

Of course, two ALEC member groups benefit greatly from all this. The first and most obvious is the National Rifle Association. Don't let anyone fool you, the NRA is a corporate lobbying firm, not a grassroots group. Everything the NRA does has one goal in mind; sell more guns and ammo. With the 1:15 concealed carry stat, they've been extremely successful in marketing fear to Floridians.

But the other is less obvious -- the prison-industrial complex. Private prisons don't benefit directly from loose gun laws, but they do benefit from the culture of fear used to promote them. The same disproportionate fear of crime that leads to "shoot first, ask questions later" laws also contributes to the criminalization of minor offenses, the continuing (and failing) War on Drugs, increasingly extended sentences, and other laws guaranteed to keep prisons full to overflowing.

And if you think the prison-industrial complex only profits from housing convicts, think again. Last August, a piece in The Nation -- "The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor" -- described how the private prison industry is basically stealing jobs from non-incarcerated Americans.

Although a wide variety of goods have long been produced by state and federal prisoners for the US government—license plates are the classic example, with more recent contracts including everything from guided missile parts to the solar panels powering government buildings—prison labor for the private sector was legally barred for years, to avoid unfair competition with private companies. But this has changed thanks to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), its Prison Industries Act, and a little-known federal program known as PIE (the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program). While much has been written about prison labor in the past several years, these forces, which have driven its expansion, remain largely unknown.

"Three strikes" laws, "truth in sentencing" laws, and other ALEC-inspired measures serve only to make it harder to leave prison once you enter it -- and to make it easy to go back if you manage to get out. Meanwhile, all those convicts the state is paying you to house are workers who will work for third world wages, taking jobs from other workers. On TV and in the movies, these workers work in the prison laundry. But the Florida Department of Corrections lists jobs as diverse as optical lens grinding to customer service reps, all under the guise of "rehabilitation," by a private nonprofit called Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises, Inc. (PRIDE). It's a practice called "insourcing" -- i.e., instead of outsourcing to cheap overseas labor, you insource to America's own captive worker population.

Private prisons are hotbeds of human rights abuse. And it's hard to get people to care about that because of the (incorrect) perception that incarcerated people are treated too well. In the minds of far too many, they're animals and monsters finally getting what they deserve, not the drug war victim busted under "three strikes" for selling pot to his buddies -- mostly because politicians don't talk about prison populations in realistic ways. In the same way, when you talk about prison labor taking away jobs, it's dismissed as giving these "animals" a "free ride."

Even if you accept the argument that everyone in prison richly deserves to be there (and no doubt, many do), it's hard to justify taking jobs from innocent workers and giving them to these criminals. But there again, fear kicks in. Fear -- and the hatred it engenders -- is irrational. You say "prison labor" and too many peoples' brains lock on the word "prison." Then they define it as "building filled with people I hate because I'm afraid of them." Make them work, not lie around on their bunk all day watching cable.

Fear is a lucrative business. And ALEC is Fear, Inc.


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