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The Return of the Chain Gang?


A distinctive feature of driving through Georgia when I was a child was the chain gang of prisoners in their traditional, striped black and white costumes, working on the roads, always accompanied by brown-uniformed armed guards.  You could also see them in other Southern states, but they gradually disappeared over time. Well, prison labor is coming back, thanks to the policies of state governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and, also soon no doubt to his avid followers among other Republican governors in Ohio, Michigan, Maine, Florida, Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma.  

First, Governor Walker eliminated collective bargaining and began dismantling public unions.  This opened the way to replacing public workers with prison labor.  According to ThinkProgress, inmates are replacing many formerly unionized civic workers for free—- although they may receive “time off” for good behavior and good work. Racine County, for example, is already using inmates to do “landscaping, painting, and other basic maintenance around the county that was previously done by county workers.”

ThinkProgress also reported that The Washington Examiner called Racine’s move “another success story… all great news for Wisconsin taxpayers. Hopefully, we’ll see more of it.”  While some may applaud giving prisoners “more work and activity options,” using prisoners (often from privatized prisons) to replace public sector workers is somewhat disturbing, especially in view of the large increase nationally in the numbers of unemployed precisely because of those layoffs of public workers by state and municipal governments. Republican efforts in Washington, D.C., and in the States proceed on their deliberate path of re-wrecking America’s economy and forcing us into a double-dip recession.

These policies did not spring full-blown from the devious mind of Governor Walker himself, says Bob Sloan, writing in DailyKos. Governor Walker, faithful lackey that he is, is following a game plan devised by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which for 30-some years has been funded by the Koch brothers, but also by Boeing, AT&T, and major corporations in PhRMA, insurance, and investment, explains Sloan. ALEC has prepared “model legislation” over the years which has cleared the path for this conservative take-over on the state level—- that is one reason they have drummed up so much anti-fed, states rights furor, because they knew the federal government would have successfully opposed these policies. They have operated under the radar.

ALEC’s game plan for state government is now apparent, according to Sloan: destabilize labor, de-fund public education and use vouchers for private/charter schools, disenfranchise voters likely to vote Democratic, imprison immigrants, privatize prisons, abolish elected local governments and replace them with appointed, often corporate officers, and enable corporate benefactors “access to that huge captive workforce” while “reducing any wage paid to the inmate workers.” Sloan refers to this latter scheme as “a 21st Century styled ‘legal’ Slave Labor pool to draw from as they replaced civilian workers with prisoners. This prison labor agenda is a huge cash cow for ALEC and their members.

Coordinating with ALEC programs, and also contributing research papers, rationale, and suggestions are various Koch-funded efforts in numerous think tanks, universities, and colleges across the country.  Not all such colleges are evangelical, parochial, or privately funded ones (like Regent University, Thomas Aquinas College, or Wisconsin Lutheran College, for example). George Mason University in Fairfax, although a public university, has the Koch-funded Mercatus Center, which formulated much of President Bush’s environmental de-regulation policies, and there are similar “conditional agreements” (meaning, Koch imposes their conservative, Ayn Rand-type views) with Clemson, West Virginia, Troy, Utah, and, recently, Florida State universities. The intent is clearly to brainwash the rising generation of young leaders; Paul Weyrich, co-founder of ALEC and the Heritage Foundation, once wrote:

“The new movement will inevitably be geared toward children and young adults, especially their education.  We will accomplish the goal of retaking our country only when large numbers of young people are educated outside of the indoctrinating environment of many public and private schools, universities and of course, the popular culture.”

In this context, the entire reactionary agenda of these new Republican governors makes a coherent sense (even including Michele Bachmann’s signing of the Family Values pledge castigating popular culture). The sheer size and rapidity of their brutality also makes Machiavellian sense (good old Niccolo usually advised overwhelming cruelty when a prince seizes power, in order to stun the populace into submission). The general public, and, unfortunately, the national Democratic leadership have stumbled, wandering around in denial as if nothing is really happening, making no forceful response to Walker et al, thus leaving the struggling unions and little people of Wisconsin, Ohio, etc., pretty much on their own.

For Virginians, pleased that Virginia has managed to pass a bipartisan, balanced budget, they should recall that their Republican Governor just bebopped off to Colorado with other Republican governors to meet with the Koch brothers. The trip was more than an obeisance to their corporate overlords. It was doubtless a planning session.  


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