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There are plenty of legitimate reasons to send someone to prison—deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation—but profit is not among them. Unfortunately, it’s an obscenely large reason that American prisons today house more inmates than any other country on this planet.
If that doesn’t trouble you, it should. A nation that prides itself on freedom is, paradoxically, the world’s largest jailer. As of 2014, the American incarceration rate was a whopping 743 per 100,000. That’s well above the second largest jailer’s (Russia, at 577). Today, as in 2014, about one-fourth of the world’s prisoners are Americans. There are more prisoners in America than in all of Europe—a continent that’s double our population.
While there are numerous culprits behind this trend, like draconian sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, the most troubling is an increasingly privatized prison system that makes money off rampant criminalization and the hiking up of more and more sentences to levels that were previously unheard of.
Private prisons are a problem because introducing profit into the criminal justice calculus means, well, lobbyists.
And lobbyists mean that private interests are deciding public issues. Yet there are higher motives than the profit motive; indeed, the profit motive may be an improper consideration when deciding several resolutions to complicated public issues, like gun reform, health care, and criminal justice. In the private prisons context, however, the loss of freedom for some means the gain of cash for others. There are interests out there who hope to imprison more people—simply so that they can make an extra buck.
Perhaps the worst aspect here is that, like the military-industrial complex, the general public is unaware of what a profitable business this unsavory thing has become, or that private prisons even exist. Consider the introduction to a recent Salon article:
Imagine living in a country where prisons are private corporations that profit from keeping their beds stocked at, or near, capacity and the governing officials scramble to meet contractual ‘lockup quotas.’ Imagine that taxpayers would have to pay for any empty beds should crime rates fall below that quota. Surprise! You already live there.
In Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, author Jeremy Scahill outlines parallel problems that arise in the context of military privatization. When mercenary companies profit from conflict, the government—again, a public institution—goes to war for market incentives that may disproportionately hurt the poor.
The U.S. fights wars not because of national interests, but instead because of corporate interests. Lobbyists, who by definition represent (often narrow) private interests, push the public mechanisms of society to do their bidding. A hardworking blue-collar guy from Kansas thus pays taxes to fuel a war—or even gives his life in a war—that was largely pushed for by military contractors who stand to profit.
Parallel concerns involving the tension between public and private goals arise from the prison-industrial complex. Prisons serve a public function, yet the privatization of prisons means that a small, wealthy group’s goals will have effects that touch the rest of us and that are antithetical to the public trust. According to a Mother Jones article:
Occupancy requirements… are common practice within the private prison industry. A new report by In the Public Interest, an anti-privatization group, reviewed 62 contracts for private prisons operating around the country at the local and state level. In the Public Interest found that 41 of those contracts included occupancy requirements mandating that local or state government keep those facilities between 80 and 100 percent full. In other words, whether crime is rising or falling, the state must keep those beds full.
Aside from draining state coffers with unreasonable contracts, Corrections Corporation of America and other private prison companies (obviously motivated by higher profit margins) have lobbied for mandatory minimums, “three-strike” laws, and “truth-in-sentencing” laws that have driven up the already-obscene prison population.
In short, one man’s incarceration—his ruined life—is another man’s livelihood.
American lives are not mere goods to be slapped with a price tag and bartered away. It’s time to end the prison-industrial complex and give the keys to decision-making back to their rightful owners: We the People.
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