Posted on February 14, 2014 · Posted in Frank Friday, P-cubed News

By Shyama Venkateswar

Prisons are big business in America. There are more than 2 million inmates in state, federal and private prisons throughout the country.  Although the U.S. represents only 5 percent of the world’s population, it disproportionately houses 25 percent of the entire prison population in the world. The privatization of prisons began under the successive presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and then rapidly accelerated after President Bill Clinton’s Three-Strike law in 1994. A decade ago, only five private prisons operated in the entire country holding 2,000 inmates. Today, there are 100 private prisons with a total population of 62,000 and growing.

What’s especially troubling about private prisons, as opposed to traditional state and federal prisons, is that they operate like any other business – to maximize revenues and cut costs. But in the context of guarding prisoners, what does that mean?  Private prisons can often receive as much as $200 per inmate per night and can make a profit on each prisoner by such cost-cutting strategies as reducing the number of guards and other prison personnel, reducing access to healthcare, cutting back on food, and paying less than minimum wage to its prisoners for their labor, among other measures.

The best way to keep the money flowing in is to keep prisons full and beds filled. Industry lobby groups aggressively promote their interests to maintain the privatization of prisons. The Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), one of the largest private prison companies spent more than $18 million on federal lobbying between 1999 and 2009; the company reported profits of $1.7 billion in 2010. In the decade between 2000 and 2010, the three biggest private prison companies – CCA, the Geo Group and Wackenhut – contributed more than $6 million to political causes.

And it’s not just the private prisons who are benefiting from an increased number of prisoners. Prison labor produces uniforms and plastic utensils used by McDonalds. Jeans made by inmates in Tennessee prisons receiving 50 cents an hour are sold in K-Mart and J.C. Penny.  Other products made in prison, with labor costs well below the federal minimum wage, include dentures, eyeglasses, and food products. In addition, an influential and conservative group promoting free market principles and limited government, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is deeply connected with major corporations in America, is closely tied with two of the biggest private prison companies, CCA and Geo. The nexus between industry and the prison system is lucrative; private corporations and other institutions profit from the mass incarceration that defines America’s criminal system.

The biggest issue of concern, however, is the fact that the criminal justice system in the United States uses harsher penalties than most comparable countries, including life without parole as a deterrent against crime on the belief that society can be made safer by putting away criminals for longer and longer periods of time. An ACLU report found that a life without parole sentence disproportionately affects blacks who are 20 times more likely to receive this sentence than whites. This is especially troubling considering the  majority of prisoners in American prisons are non-violent offenders who are there because of drug convictions or due to their illegal immigration status. It cost taxpayers $1.784 billion to keep the 3,278 prisoners currently serving life without parole sentences for nonviolent offenses, including cases like this unlucky man with two prior convictions caught for stealing socks and condemned to 25 years to life in a California prison.

Additionally, tough-on-crime legislation like mandatory minimum sentencing laws, three-strikes laws and life without parole sentencing has created an untenable situation as prisons are increasingly filled with juveniles, drug offenders, the mentally ill and illegal immigrants. Adding to this bleak picture is the fact that eleven states in the country have laws that prohibit former convicts from voting even after time has been served. About 5.8 million people are affected by the law; African-Americans represent more than a third of those who are barred from voting. In states like Florida, 1 in 5 blacks are not allowed to vote due to previous prison time amounting to 10 percent of the population.

A closer look is urgently needed at four important levels: one, the sentencing laws and their disproportionate impact on minority communities;  two, the extent to which prisons reflect profound social issues that have been inadequately tackled by institutions outside; three, the business model of profits on which private prisons are run; and finally, the process by which the criminal justice system systematically discriminates against large numbers of people on the basis of race and class, resulting in their disenfranchisement. The time is now for a reform of the American criminal justice system.

Dr. Shyama Venkateswar is the Distinguished Lecturer and Director of the Public Policy Program. Follow her on Twitter: @DrSVenkateswarlike the Public Policy Program at Roosevelt House on Facebook and follow @PcubedatRH on Twitter.