Originally published on The Humanist and republished here with the author’s permission.
Recently, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced in a memo addressed from Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates to the acting director of the federal Bureau of Prisons that they would be phasing out the use of private prisons to house federal inmates.
This national step in the right direction, however minute, has been widely lauded for many good reasons.
Private prisons have a long track record of prisoners’ rights abuses, not to mention poor working conditions, in the name of cost-reduction, often while failing to meet minimum provisions of their government contracts with few, if any, repercussions.
Prisoners suffer from inadequate to nonexistent mental health and medical services, limited educational resources, food that doesn’t meet USDA standards, and barely habitable conditions that aggravate preexisting health issues, to name only a few problems in private prisons.
These violations are often worsened by a skeleton staff of underqualified, undertrained, and underpaid workers, leading to decreased security and safety combined with increased contraband-related issues.
In the June/August 2016 issue of Mother Jones, journalist Shane Bauer, whose time as a hostage in solitary confinement in Iran moved him to focus on US prison reporting, exposed the conditions of Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana. Bauer worked there undercover as a prison guard for four months.
His article, which may have inspired the Department of Justice’s decision, focuses on a prison that is run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), one of the two largest private prison operators in the country (the other being the GEO Group Inc.), which cumulatively made 3.3 billion dollars in revenue in 2014.
Bauer describes the harrowing work culture and conditions that feed the dysfunction of private prisons. When asked, CCA’s corporate office denied knowledge or endorsement of many of these experiences.
For example, Bauer details some of the instructions he was given during training (to not break up fights), conversations about the value of the prisoners’ lives (one officer implied he wouldn’t hesitate to kill without remorse), the conditions of suicide watch, and many of the shortcuts taken to reduce costs at the expense of the prisoners or to cause prisoners to stay longer, for which CCA is paid.
The DOJ’s decision will eventually close thirteen such privately run federal prisons, ultimately affecting 22,000 prisoners, who make up 12% of the federal prison population.
While any recognition of prisoners’ welfare is laudable because it acknowledges their inherent dignity as human beings, the actual effects of this decision are a drop in the bucket – unless they’re paired with three major shifts that make clear the corporate interests that fuel a cycle of incarceration.
1. Phase Out Private Prisons at the State Level and in Federal Immigration Detention Centers and Noncitizen Prisons
The prisoners currently affected by the DOJ decision are only a small percentage of the 2.3 million incarcerated individuals in state and federal prisons, local jails, military prisons, immigration detention centers, and juvenile correctional facilities.
Illinois, New York, and Louisiana have already banned the privatization of prison services. Some states, like California, are now considering phasing out contracts with for-profit prisons. But others, like Ohio, have refused to follow suit.
In the past decade, the federal government has also cracked down on “illegal re-entry” as part of Operation Streamline, a program initiated by the Bush administration.
As a result of this program, the criminal penalty and prosecution of immigrants who have attempted to re-enter the US after already being deported has increased by 183%.
These immigrants are housed in Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons run by private companies like CCA and GEO, which according to a Fusion investigative report, charge between 50-75 dollars per immigrant held per day.
A 2014 ACLU investigation finds these private prisons subject prisoners to excessive and arbitrary solitary confinement and needless suffering due to faulty medical care, among other abuses.
The Fusion report also points to the inappropriately intimate relationship between the federal Bureau of Prisons and private prison companies.
For instance, after resigning from his position at the Bureau of Prisons for drunk driving, Harley Lappin was given an executive vice presidency and chief corrections officer position at CCA. While working at the Bureau of Prisons, he had awarded five immigrant prison contracts to GEO and three to CCA
To truly prevent the abuses inflicted upon prisoners by private prisons, more action must be taken to do away with private prisons at the state level and in immigration cases.
2. Curtail the Lobbying Power of Private Prison Companies to Dismantle the Prison-Industrial Complex
Private prisons were elaborately designed at a time in history when US prisons were overcrowded and the prevailing attitude was that incarceration would reduce crime, a model with little supporting evidence.
Taking advantage of the moment, private prisons aimed to turn a profit at the expense of the human rights and dignity of the prisoners in their care.
As Bauer describes in his Mother Jones article, during the 1980s, the prison population was increasing along with the length of sentences while the drug war heated up and states mandated that prisoners serve at least 85% of their terms. Politicians turned to private prisons as a way to expand their prison systems without taking on new debt.
Unfortunately, these measures fail to address the root causes of crime, such as poverty, so they allow social and economic inequalities to fester, masked by prison as a supposed solution to social ills. Instead, they enrich private prisons while leaving prisoners to suffer.
GEO and CCA have donated $10 million to political candidates since 1989 and spent more than $25 million on lobbying to support policies that would require the building of more prisons or increase the number of immigration detention centers.
For example, the Washington Post cites the many occasions when these companies have undue influence over politicians and policies, including the close relationship between former presidential candidate Marco Rubio and GEO.
Although private prison companies’ stock prices have dropped noticeably since the Department of Justice’s announcement, they are far from incapacitated.
In fact, according to the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, the prison contracts that would be phased out only account for 7% of the CCA’s annual revenue.
Keeping people incarcerated is a lucrative business for companies like GEO and CCA, and while they might invest in more rehabilitation services and mental health centers, they are still not incentivized to address the issues that cause crime in the first place.
Prevention rather than prison should be the goal, but profit is the motive of private prisons.
Private prisons can take advantage of attitudes to reduce the prison population while still inhibiting true reform from taking place through the use of their profit-oriented business model that puts cost-cutting above humane treatment of their inmates and workers.
3. Prioritize a Rehabilitative Justice System Over a Racist and Classist Punitive Structure
Although the US accounts for 5% of the world’s population, it houses a quarter of the world’s prison population.
It also keeps individuals jailed for unreasonably long sentences, at taxpayers’ expense, which reduces their chances of reintegration in society even after they are too old to pose a danger to others.
The US system also makes it exceedingly difficult for anyone with a criminal record to re-enter society through barriers to employment and other unrealistic requirements post-incarceration.
Business Insider reported in 2014 that 76.6% of prisoners are rearrested within five years.
This system perpetuates social injustice with disproportionately lenient sentences doled to those in positions of privilege – affluent or white – for similar offenses.
Previously prosecuted individuals are also rarely pardoned in the event of changes to laws regarding the criminality of an offense, such as non-violent offenses or drug-related offenses.
One-third of all black men are imprisoned at any given time – more of the black population of the US than South Africa imprisoned under apartheid.
Angela Davis addressed this issue for Colorlines in 1998, in which she described imprisonment as the first resort to many social problems stemming from poverty.
Lumping these problems – such as homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy – together under the category of “crime” automatically attributes them to people of color, who are disproportionately more likely to live in poverty.
Unlike the US, Norway’s prison system is based on restorative justice, which “aims to repair the harm caused by crime rather than punish people,” as defined by Business Insider.
“[J]udges can only sentence criminals to a maximum of 21 years. At the end of the initial term, however, five-year increments can be added onto the prisoner’s sentence every five years, indefinitely, if the system determines he or she isn’t rehabilitated.”
Ultimately, private prisons are still just a piece of the problem.
Our culture that believes people are irredeemable and unchanging over time must change. The industry developed around imprisonment has had a vested interest in criminalizing more offenses and keeping more individuals in the prison system.
Furthermore, our lack of empathy for those who are incarcerated has allowed for the leniency toward private prisons’ abuses.
Humanists, who place empathy above rigid religious doctrines that condemn people as irredeemable for having original sin, are in a prime position to lead the charge to ensure that our prison system becomes more humane while also advocating for more comprehensive reforms to reduce poverty and promote equality for people of color.
Jessica Xiao is a writer and assistant editor at TheHumanist.com. She also manages the operations of Humanist Press and is the projects assistant at the American Humanist Association. She was a community facilitator for the McGill University Social Learning for Social Impact MOOC on edX and a current volunteer grant writer for the Montreal-based international women’s economic development nonprofit Artistri Sud.