Institutional slavery was supposedly outlawed in 1865. So why is it that a system where workers, who are unfairly forced into the system, are paid pennies a day and “rented” and “traded” around is still in existence?
People are generally familiar with some of the other problematic lobbies, such as the NRA (which I wrote about in my last article) and Big Pharma, but a huge problem that falls under the radar comes in the form of the private prison lobby. In 2016, Obama and the Justice department passed legislation phasing out for-profit prisons, but Trump’s “law-and-order” platform has mostly rolled those laws back, and for-profit prisons are back on the come-up. Especially in states with a large immigrant presence such as Arizona, the for-profit prison lobby is especially active in attempting to pass legislation that would increase the number of incarcerations. They lobby heavily with ICE and the Department of Homeland security. As stated by Christopher Petrella, “Private prison companies have been preparing for such a moment by shifting their focus to ICE facilities, many of which are already run by for-profit entities and house immigration detainees.”
Prison labor is so profitable and so under the media radar, but it raises both ethical and societal questions, especially when put in the hands of the private sector. The industry itself earns over $1 billion a year, while paying inmates a few cents an hour, hardly a wage. Ultimately, we should be trying to reduce the number of people we put in jail by properly rehabilitating current inmates and establishing policies that focus less on incarceration and more on addressing the actual problems that cause these incarcerations.
The issue with the privatized prison industry is that the only way for them to be sustainable is to arrest more people. And once state and federal governments become reliant on these private prisons, private prisons can leverage that power to pass legislation that arbitrarily punishes people. For example, a private prison in Estancia, New Mexico held the entire state government hostage by threatening to close unless 300 new inmates were inducted to the facility, which eventually did happen. It’s ridiculous that this private institution based on the labor of people whose rights have been deprived can have such a powerful impact on government. It seems like an ethical conflict of interest that a corporation dependent on labor supplied through the justice system can alter that same justice system on a whim.
At the end of the day, the purpose of a prison is rehabilitation: inmates are people with families and aspirations too, and definitely have much to offer society. For example, a Silicon Valley based program, Code.7370, teaches inmates to code so that when they leave prison, they have marketable skills that can translate directly into the workforce. This is so important for reducing recidivism and helping released inmates successfully integrate into society. This is the type of program we should have in a society; instead, we have the travesty of for-profit prisons that do nothing to help the imprisoned and rely on their labor instead.
Additionally, a facility whose sole purpose is to create profit probably doesn’t care about the wellbeing and health of inmates at all, and who blames them? When the only people that matter are shareholders, who cares if the inmates are suffering through disease and abuse? Of course, this is ethically blasphemous, but when money is involved, it seems that morals and human worth fly out the window. Abuse, overcrowding, staffing, violence, sexual assault and terrible conditions are many of the problems that plague for-profit prisons. There have been stories of no working toilets and lights, with rats running rampant as underfed prisoners crowd in dirty cells.
There’s the terrifying story of Terrill Thomas who died of dehydration after prison officers refused his pleas for something to drink after the water in his cell broke. There are so many cases of abuse, both mental and physical, by prison guards, who are not entirely at fault, on inmates that it’s impossible to list all of the atrocities that occur. Prison guards aren’t trained and are understaffed anyway, all to cut costs. It’s all for the shareholders, right? Even though these problems exist at all levels of prison be it federal or private, the problem is worse in private prisons. To give an example, assaults on guards happen 49 percent more often and assaults on inmates happen 65 percent more frequently in private prisons.
So why am I listing all of these atrocities? I’m doing this to show that prison is ultimately dehumanizing. These problems aren’t at all unique to private prisons, which exactly exemplifies the problem even more: as a society, we need to do our best to stop throwing people in prison.
Many people in prison don’t even belong there in the first place. A Time study found that over 39 percent of people in these prisons are low-level offenders with low risk of violence who should be allowed out. Time also stated that longer sentences have almost no effect of reducing recidivism and in some cases can increase the chance of crime. The Huffington Post additionally found that “U.S. law enforcement arrests about 1.5 million people each year for drug law violations – and more than 80 percent of those arrests are for simple drug possession. On any given night, there are at least 133,000 people behind bars in U.S. prisons and jails for drug possession – and 63,000 of these people are held pre-trial, which means they’re locked up simply because they’re too poor to post bail.”
Also, according to the NAACP fact sheet, race is a big factor in incarceration. Even though whites and African-Americans use drugs at roughly the same rate, black people are six times more likely to be thrown in jail. For-profit prisons only exacerbate this racial inequality – in their quest to find more labor to fuel their sweatshops, they unequally impact black communities, tearing families apart and continuing the cycle as broken households have been linked to more crime.
By fighting the for-profit prison lobby, we can accomplish many things. It’s so unethical and counterproductive in society to actively seek to profit off punishment and tearing families apart, be it through unfair laws or deportations. Even though the prison system still has many problems at the federal level, each of those problems are amplified when put into the hands of singularly profit-minded corporations. There are vicious conflicts of interest connecting the justice department and the lobby along with hopeless cycles of imprisonment that unfairly impact poorer communities. Again, the love of money consumes Capitol Hill, and we must ask ourselves what we value more: human life or a deranged institution that will only exacerbate the societal problems of today.
Contact Tiger Sun at tgsun ‘at’ stanford.edu.