Private Prisons: Bernie Sanders is Right Prison Photo

US Senator Bernie Sanders (allegedly a Vermont Independent, but running for president as a Democrat) and US Representatives Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Bobby Rush (D-IL) introduced bills in Congress last week aiming to “ban private prisons, reinstate the federal parole system and eliminate quotas for the number of immigrants held in detention.” The bills won’t pass, and who knows what devils lurk in their details, but the general direction is right.

Americans should be embarrassed by the propensity of government at all levels to cage other Americans. We’ve often heard over the last few years that the US government imprisons a higher proportion of its own subject population than any other government on Earth. I doubt that’s true — the remaining Communist regimes and other dictatorships likely don’t honestly account for how many people they incarcerate — but the US certainly leads the “western democracies” in the matter. Nearly one in every 30 Americans is “under correctional supervision,” i.e. in jail, in prison, or on parole or probation.

As a libertarian, I’m all for “privatization.” I’d love to see as many services as possible taken out of government’s hands and left to the private sector.

But “private prisons” aren’t “private” in any meaningful sense of the word. They’re still operated under government supervision and according to government rules; they are still paid for with taxpayer dollars. Fake “privatization” of prisons creates two bad situations:

First, it creates a special interest lobby centered around how much money can be made by sticking people in cages. “Private prison” companies lobby for things like mandatory minimum sentences and a litany of new or revised “tough on crime” laws that put more and more non-violent criminals in their facilities to generate more and more profits. That lobby finances the campaigns of politicians who pass such laws. It’s good for business.

Second, it results in situations where no one is held accountable or responsible for abuses. When, for example a prisoner dies for lack of proper medical care, the politicians blame the “private prison” operators and the operators blame the politicians, round and round in a circle until someone’s wrist gets slapped and everyone forgets about it (until the next such incident).

I won’t vote for him, but Sanders is right on this. We should be looking for ways to minimize, or even abolish, imprisonment, not ways to pretend we’ve “privatized” it.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.


Welcome to Shutdown Theater, 2015 Edition

The western front of the United States Capitol...
The western front of the United States Capitol. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Well, here we go again. Sample annual headline: “Republicans Threaten Government Shutdown.” This year’s excuse: A feud over whether or not to continue writing an annual $500 million corporate welfare check to Planned Parenthood.

With bated breath, the mainstream media informs us that the usual suspects on Capitol Hill are “working feverishly” to avoid the “shutdown.” If they don’t work out a deal, the media will squeeze a few more days’ or weeks’ worth of purple prose out of this fake calamity.

Yes, fake.

There’s not going to be any “government shutdown.” There’s never been one, nor is one likely in the future. Or at least not until the US government as we know it “shuts down” for good (yes, that will happen someday — nothing lasts forever).

Nor are these fake “shutdowns” anything close to calamities. At worst they’re mild inconveniences, and then only because Americans have acquiesced in government doing far too many things for far too long.

When we hear that the government has, or is about to, “shut down,” there’s always a curious follow-on clause: “Except for essential services.”

You’d be surprised at the variety of seemingly non-essential services the US government considers “essential.” The list is too long for this column, so I’ll just throw out one example: TSA agents will continue to feel up air travelers, even though letting not-quite-qualified wannabe cops routinely sexually assault people has, on the evidence, never prevented so much as a single terror attack.

But here are two more important questions than what’s “essential” or “nor essential”:

First, if something is not “essential” — a synonym for “necessary” or “indispensable” — why is the possibility that the government will stop doing it for a little while always portrayed in the mainstream media, as an impending disaster of epic proportions?

Secondly, if something is not “essential,”  why is the government doing it in the first place? Especially when that government is $18.5 trillion dollars in debt, runs annual spending deficits in the neighborhood of half a trillion dollars each year, and faces future unfunded liabilities which may be in excess of $200 trillion?

It seems to me that the impending fake “shutdown” should be greeted not with angst but with anticipation. Or, at worst, with apathy.

It’s not the end of the world. It’s not even the end of an era. It’s the finale of a bad sitcom’s bad season.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.


Election 2016 Reminder: Who Needs Who? Vote Pencil

Memory has a way of playing tricks on the mind, but my recollection is that each of the seven presidential elections since I reached adulthood (I turned 18 the week after Ronald Reagan was re-elected in 1984) has been advertised — by the parties, by the candidates, by the media — as “the most important election of our lifetimes.”

Here comes the eighth. Same schtick,  even if the Jerry Springer atmospherics have been turned up a little. The world will end if Candidate X is elected. Americans will starve in the streets if Candidate Y isn’t elected. You know what I’m talking about.

Of course, each presidential election IS incredibly important to the parties, the candidates, and the media. Elections are their bread and butter. But are they really that consequential to the rest of us? On close examination, the only plausible answer is “no.”

Politicians of both major political parties trot out big plans and contrast those big plans with the big plans of the other candidates. Yes, those plans differ between the parties and from candidate to candidate, but only in degree, not kind. They all boil down to minor variations on the theme of  “let ME spend your money and run your lives.”

Look, I get it. I’m a politics junkie. I love the horse race, too. Like most Americans, I let myself get wrapped up in the dueling narratives.  Probably more so — I’ve been an activist at one level or another in every presidential election since 1992. It’s easy to forget that there’s more to life than politics. But there is.

Here’s a secret the politicians don’t want you to know: You don’t need them nearly as much as they need you. In fact, you need them like you need another hole in your head, while they need you desperately.

Without them, your life goes on. Without you, their careers screech to a halt.

Their conflicting plans are a  constant low-level social contaminant.  Sure, those plans vary by single-digit parts per million in content and composition, but that variation isn’t anything to obsess over.

We’d all be better off ignoring them until they close up their campaign offices, go home and get real jobs in the productive sector.

Okay, that’s probably not going to happen any time soon. But let’s at least commit to giving this new crop of presidential candidates the attention and respect actually due them instead of the attention and respect they demand. Turn their fake “debates” into a drinking game. Picture the various candidates in their underwear. Mentally preface each of their speeches with “if I was on drugs, I might say …”

But whatever you do, don’t take them seriously.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.