What are Private Prisons and What’s the Problem?
Prison privatization is a way of allowing the government to work with a business / company so that they can build and operate a prison while the government pays them. The company then runs the private prison as a business rather than a federal facility or rehabilitation service. When someone goes to prison for a crime committed, one’s hope should be that after their release, they are more well-equipped to re-enter society successfully. Although many federal facilities do not operate in this mindset of rehabilitation, privatized prisons have no reason to. In fact, private prisons profit per prisoner which makes it good for business for criminality to increase. If you want less crime, you do not want private prisons.
Private prisons are problematic because since they are businesses, they do not legally have to release how they spend their money. The businesses also have the option to accept or decline anyone from their prison. As they choose which incarcerated people they want, they often decline anyone who is more violent, anyone who has medical issues or anyone who has mental health issues—these people are more expensive to care for, so private prisons simply choose not to. Those denied from private prisons go into federal facilities instead. In addition to this, these business prisons have 49% more incidents and guard assaults and 65% more inmate on inmate assaults. If that’s not horrific enough, one case study in a Mississippi private prison showed that incarcerated individuals lost from ten to sixty pounds during their time due to being severely underfed so that the business could save money on food. With the outbreak of COVID-19, even as incarcerated individuals make masks and hand sanitizer, they do not have access to similar protective gear themselves and are said to be in ‘petri dishes’ for COVID. Putting someone in a cell to be underfed, mistreated and at an increased risk of violence and sickness is not the way to a rehabilitated and safer society.
Why Did We Ever Start This?
Prison privatization was initially created because of how overcrowded government funded prisons in the United States were. This is due to the current War on Drugs (a racially motivated scheme during a time of decreased drug usage) which was officially announced in 1982 by President Ronald Reagan, according to Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow. Even though drug use was on the decline when Reagan declared a War on Drugs, shortly after the war was declared, “crack began spreading rapidly in poor black neighborhoods of Los Angeles”, according to Alexander. The Reagan administration quickly began publicizing this emergence of the drug in 1985 to build support for the proclaimed War on Drugs. High rates of imprisonment followed as those struggling with drug addiction were punished with prison rather than rehabilitated. The quick and rapid increase left the government searching for places to house incarcerated people and private prisons began being used. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world per 100,000 people, ranking just before El Salvador and followed by Rwanda, Russia, and so on.
Not only does the United States have an extremely high rate of incarceration, which is mostly due to Reagan’s War on Drugs, but the prison system is also extremely racist. As the Sentencing Project explains, “ Today, people of color make up 37% of the U.S. population but 67% of the prison population. Overall, African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences. Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men and Hispanic men are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as non-Hispanic white men.” This is absolutely detestable as every step within the criminal justice system is plagued by racial discrimination—remember that these statistics are not even touching on issues of police brutality.
As a large part of this issue began with the War on Drugs, the Drug Policy Alliance points out that now, “nearly 80% of people in federal prison and almost 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are Black or Latino.” However, the Hamilton Project explains that “black and white Americans sell and use drugs at similar rates, but black Americans are 2.7 times as likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses.” This reiterates once more how racially motivated the criminal justice system in the United States is. After unfairly punishing racial minorities, placing these minorities and others into privatized prisons which do not care about rehabilitation but rather, economic gain, is dangerous to the individual incarcerated and to the society impacted by this profit from crime. Which is why it is a good thing that President Biden suspended private prison contracts.
So What’s the Problem?
Although President Biden did issue an executive order that stopped the Department of Justice from renewing contracts with “privately operated criminal detention facilities, as consistent with applicable law,” according to Morgan Simon’s “What Does Biden’s ‘Ban’ On Private Prisons Really Mean?” with Forbes, this executive order did not impact immigration detention facilities or post-incarceration services such as transition housing and electronic monitoring. These different ‘services’ and facilities are owned by companies who also own privatized prisons.
Therefore, the same issues that private prisons have created can now continue to be implemented through immigration detention facilities and post-incarceration services. In addition to that being problematic, the companies who own these things are the same companies who have been operating privatized prisons in the past and essentially investing in the crime of the United States. Although the Biden Administration did make a public effort to shift away from privatized prisons, the avoidance of similar orders for immigration detention facilities, transition housing, and electronic monitoring allows a shift towards a different means of oppression—one in line with American history. Each time a shift towards progress has happened in the United States, an almost immediate reshaping of the oppression has begun from methods already formed. In this scenario, the relief of privatized prison contracts being ended is replaced with the concerns and problems of these other private businesses. This is just a new caste system oppressing majority black and latinx American citizens and immigrants.
What Should We Want?
All methods of private companies monetizing crime or the suffering of disadvantaged populations and immigrants should be ended. Private companies should not gain economic capital every time someone is punished by the criminal justice system or held in an immigration detention. The American government needs to end contracts with these other facilities and post-incarceration services, as well. If companies continue to have a hold on these oppressed groups, we can also assume they will continue lobbying and pushing for their economic interests—and their economic interests are to have more citizens and immigrants on house arrest or within an immigration detention. Do we really hope to increase these numbers? If not, we should not hope to have companies in charge of the facilities and services. History has clearly taught us what will come of it.
In addition, our criminal justice system needs a variety of changes outside of the singular topic of privatization. For example, the horrors of the War on Drugs need to be amended and we need to decriminalize drugs and rehabilitate rather than punish those struggling with addiction. We also need to eliminate racial bias and injustice from the criminal justice system and focus on a culture of rehabilitating people after their mistakes. This method would be more effective than putting people into punishment facilities and giving them a criminal record which offers them a very limited lifestyle post-incarceration. However, none of these things can be accomplished if we ignorantly attempt to leave it up to private companies. We must demand more from the Biden administration. There’s so much left still undone.