The Dirty Jobs that Lie Beneath Economic Growth

In June 2012, Darren Rainey, an inmate in the psychiatric wing of the Dade Correctional Institution in Florida, was intentionally scalded with 180-degree shower water; he died almost immediately.

Such brutality, it turned out, was not at all unusual at this prison facility, which housed a large number of patients who, like Rainey, suffered from schizophrenia, nor was it the only kind of malicious behavior inflicted on its unfortunate residents.

Ordinary press accounts of Rainey’s death provided a neat and self-contained exposé of the evil, sadistic behavior of prison guards. Eyal Press, author Dirty Work (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2021), however, is no ordinary journalist; in his deft, empathetic, and nuanced hands, Darren Rainey’s excruciating death becomes a lens through which to examine a far wider social dysfunction. The issues raised by Mr. Press will inevitably affect the wider economy and asset prices.

Start with the housing of a someone suffering from severe schizophrenia in a prison, especially in an economically and institutionally advanced democracy.

This, it turns out, is the simplest part of the story. During the first half of the twentieth century, states gradually closed their medieval mental hospitals, and in 1963 John Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act, which established 1,500 community centers to care for the mentally ill. In the gradual retreat from social welfare activism in the 1970s, funding slowly dried up, a process that accelerated under Ronald Reagan’s austerity measures; in the 1980s, the vanguard of today’s masses of the mentally ill homeless began to populate American streets, exacerbated in the past decade by spiralling rents; in the words of one observer, “No other affluent country has abandoned its mentally ill to this extent.” By default, police became the nation’s provider of emergency psychiatric care, and its prisons, its psychiatric institutions.

Most of us rarely, if ever, come near a prison, and with good reason. They’re brutal places, and thus get hidden away in poor, isolated, and sparsely populated locales possessing little else in the way of economic opportunity. Not infrequently, they’re the only source of secure, decently paying jobs that offer pension benefits and healthcare coverage to an economically depressed area’s undereducated and under-trained workforce. The prison guard or psychiatric technician who objects to rampant cruelty risks, at a minimum, their employment; if they speak out, rent and grocery money vanish.