From 1999-2010, the total U.S. prison population rose 18 percent, an increase largely reflected by the “drug war” and stringent sentencing guidelines, such as three strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentences.
However, total private prison populations exploded fivefold during this same time period, with federal private prison populations rising by 784 percent (as seen in the chart below complied by The Sentencing Project):
This stark rise in private prison populations is partially due to increased contracts granted at the state and federal levels to behemoth prison companies such as Correction Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group. These companies claim – against available data – that they can run corrections facilities at lower costs.
However, whether such companies can save governments money is not the central issue. What’s at issue here is the corrupt, immoral dynamic that fuels such contracts: the concept of treating inmates as commodities that must be grown for profit.
Take, for example, the offer CCA made in 2012 to 48 states:
We’ll purchase and manage your jails, and in return you [the state] must promise to keep the jails at least 90 percent full.
Such contracts provide incentives for local law enforcement to increase incarceration rates, rather than decrease them. In some instances, private prisons are grown not because crime increases, but because police harvest criminals as though they are a crop that must be stocked on the local shelves.
Additionally, for-profit prison companies engage in intense lobbying efforts that have been tied to many of our nation’s most stringent sentencing guidelines, and lobby hard against the decriminalization of things such as marijuana.
The financial motive to engage in such lobbying was clearly detailed in CCA’s 2010 Annual Report (as prepared by The Sentencing Project):
Such financial incentives to stock corrections facilities naturally leads to widespread corruption. Evidence of such corruption surfaced when two Pennsylvania judges were found guilty of selling juveniles to private detention facilities for millions of dollars. The “kids for cash” scandal, in which innocent children who should not have been locked up were sold for set amounts to the detention facilities, is shocking and harrowing.
However, even more shocking and harrowing is the fact that we have allowed free market pursuits to infiltrate our system of justice, making such scandals possible. When prisoners become products, we no longer have a justice system. We have an illicit marketplace. We have a corral.
America has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. And the private prison industry is a central driving force behind this. Add to this the staggering number of African-Americans locked up, and the private prison industry has essentially created a modern-day slave trade.
A trade that should never have been allowed to enter our criminal justice system in the first place.
Follow David Harris-Gershon on Twitter @David_EHG