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Politics Here's how American prisons profit off private lives

Apr. 6, 2017
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The United States of America: the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” A land built on the inalienable right of all citizens to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These quintessential American phrases never fail to conjure the image of a melting pot, a community of countless colors and creeds holding hands, celebrating their freedom to live the white-picket-fence American dream in a land where anything is possible. 

Yet we live in the opposite of this dream, never fully basking in the so-called “freedom” America is thought to symbolize. The reality is that not everyone is equal, and freedom is limited--especially one particularly-overlooked population of oppressed Americans. For just about as long as the United States of America have existed as a country, our prisoners have faced countless injustices, and the influence of capitalism has only exacerbated this crisis. We live in a time where the government holds underprivileged prisoners’ liberty in their hands and willingly signs it away to big for-profit companies. Welcome to the beating heart of America’s prison system: for-profit (i.e. private) prisons.

In August 2016, The Department of Justice released a memo announcing the beginning of a process of “reducing—and ultimately ending—our use of privately operated prisons.” The report focused on the three main private corporations responsible for housing 12 percent of the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) total inmate population: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), The Geo Group Inc, (GEO) and the Management and Training Corporation (MTC).  To give you an idea as to how much profit these companies make, CCA and GEO alone posted a combined revenue of $3.337 Billion in 2014. The findings from the Justice Department’s report were grim and included countless incidents where the corporations did not meet safety and health requirements. And the report detailed instances of inmates beginning to fight back against these conditions: an uprising that occurred in response to the death of an inmate following the failure of prison staff to diligently handle an emergency situation;  a 250-inmate riot against inhumane conditions that encompassed low-quality food, medical care and disrespectful correctional officers. In the wake of revelations like these, the DoJ reduction seemed like a positive step (and accordingly sent share prices for private prisons plummeting). But some private prison contracts did not expire until 2024, and before that particular clock could run out, well, Donald Trump was elected President.

Shortly  after the 2016 election, the order was abolished--and stocks soared once again. On February 23, 2017, in the Trump Administration’s second Obama-era policy reversal of that week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed federal prison officials to keep using the private prisons, withdrawing Obama-era Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates’ policy in favor of phasing out the use of private prisons. According to Sessions, Yates’ order had “changed longstanding policy and practice,” thereby hurting the prison system’s ability “to meet the future needs” for housing.

These so-called “future needs” refer to Trump’s ardent stance on immigration, which includes promises to triple the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), build the wall and incarcerate more immigrants who illegally cross the border. Currently, private prison firms operate facilities and house detainees for the BOP, the U.S. Marshal Service and the Department of Homeland Security. According to USA Today, 65% of immigrants in detention last year were kept in private prison facilities.  

During the 2016 election season, for-profit prisons--and the stench of corruption they carry--have been a hot topic for all parties. And regardless of the 2016 DoJ memo, the fate of reforming for-profit prisons is always in the hands of whoever is elected--something which for-profit prison lobbyists remained very much aware of in the months leading up to November 8.

A 2012 review of Federal Election Commission data—including political contributions made by companies’ employees—showed that GEO, CCA, and MTC spent more than $32 million on election-related expenditures. As early as October 2015, VICE found that “lobbying firms linked to GEO Group and CCA” had already contributed more than $288,300 to Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio. Trump had a cozy relationship with private prisons during the 2017 election season as well, even if he was not as upfront about his stance on prisons as he was about some of his other positions. Trump somewhat shared his views on the country’s prison system during a town hall interview with Chris Matthews: “I do think we can do a lot of privatizations, and private prisons. It seems to work a lot better.” After the election, the big guys in private prisons, GEO Group and CoreCivic, donated to support Trump’s inaugural festivities. GEO Group donated $250,000, according to GEO Group Vice President of Corporate Relations Pablo Paez, and filed congressional reports show that CoreCivic matched that amount.

And the statistics betray that rehabilitation is not the primary motivation driving the prison-industrial complex. VICE reports that--since 2009--the total number of people in the federal prison system for immigration offenses is greater than the number of people charged with weapons, violent, or property offenses combined. What’s more, Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th alleges that the US is home to 5% of the world’s population but holds 25% of the world’s prisoners. In the past, collaboration with for-profit prison corporations has shown itself to be a frighteningly bipartisan practice--whether it comes in the form of prison-industry contributions to campaigns like Hillary Clinton’s to the outright militaristic stances on immigration and prison reform espoused by Donald Trump. But no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, the issue of for-profit prisons is at its core a human rights issue. And we must take immediate action to address it.

We cannot wait until a contract expires in 2024. 

We cannot wait until another act of reform is reversed. 

We cannot wait for stricter immigration imprisonment.

We cannot afford another DoJ report twenty years down the line telling us that we once again messed up at the expense of human lives. Those of us who are not incarcerated have rights and a voice that are not available to the countless Americans currently locked behind bars. It is our duty to use those things--and our empathy--to fight for actual prison reform.