Yesterday a friend (thanks, Johnny Rog!) alerted me to this story from Ohio, where last fall the state sold one of its prisons to a private operator and turned over the operations of two more prisons to private contractors. This, of course, is one of the processes in the backstory of my novel Buyout, and it’s a weird feeling to write a novel set 30ish years in the future and then see some of its elements beginning to appear in the real world. Not that I can claim any particular prescience; I wrote the book wanting to explore the consequences of what I saw as troubling cultural trends toward relating justice and profit, as well as to figure out what I thought about capital punishment. Science fiction, as everyone knows, is lousy at actually predicting things in any sort of rigorous way.
Anyway, I thought this was Ohio story was of interest because of the way it fits together with other events I became aware of after writing Buyout, including:
- A petition from Italian life-term inmates requesting that they be executed rather than serving their sentences
- A kickback scheme between judges and cronies running private youth facilities (turned into an episode of Law & Order: SVU)
- The private prison industry helping to write immigration policy and new laws in Arizona
- A moving and complicated NYT op-ed by a death-row inmate who wants to donate his organs
Taken together, these stories make for a worrying trend, and all of them in one way or another fit right in with the imagined backstory of Buyout. (News of the kickback scheme in Pennsylvania, in fact, broke right around the time the book came out. The judge in question got 17 years.)
I’ve had an interest in prison-related issues for a long time, all the way back to when I was an undergrad researching recidivism for a criminology class. The seeds of Buyout started to germinate then, while I was touring Jackson Prison in Michigan with an assistant warden named Ernie, but it took 20 years for the book to come together…not least because I hadn’t started to think of myself as a writer yet, and wouldn’t for several years.
Now that I do think of myself that way, I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest that you go read the book and see for yourself what you think…