By Lamont Lilly
Jan. 5, 2012
Here in the U.S., our “land of the free,” there are approximately 130,000 inmates now housed in privately owned prisons. It‘s a foul stench within a justice system that leads the world in number of people incarcerated within a state, federal or private institution. The latest tally of 2 million equals 25 percent of the globe’s incarcerated population.
This massive waste of human life is commonly known as the prison-industrial complex, with an even more oppressive current now being led from the top down by the highly profitable prison privatization movement. Its roots can be traced back to Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs” and tougher sentencing platform in the 1980s.
Due to policymakers’ concerns about prison overcrowding, in 1984 the Corrections Corporation of America was contracted to oversee its first facility in Hamilton County, Tenn. The transition set a federal precedent for private control of correctional institutes.
Though depicted as cost-saving, efficient operations, independent studies suggest the contrary. A lack of regulation permits smaller staff and inadequate training, which in turn produces more violent and consistently unstable conditions for prisoners. Sustainable medical care has come into question, as private prisons like the George W. Hill Center, Walnut Grove Youth Facility and New Castle Correctional Institute have garnered a barrage of recent scrutiny over the deaths of dozens of inmates. Private prisons have also proven to be just as costly to construct as publicly run prisons.
The same companies grossing billions from the capture and incarceration of people in the U.S. — mostly poor, Black and Latino/a — are the same brokers who donate millions to state senators, school boards, mayors and police chiefs. It’s no secret that private firms such as The GEO Group authorize direct appeals to federal legislation like “three strikes” and mandatory minimum sentencing. Common sense says such merging complexities spell corruption.
Meanwhile, predatory investors like Wells Fargo, American Express and Merrill Lynch reap robust returns on private bond purchases — these greed-driven giants literally banking on the results of Black and Latino/a youth and their 4th grade test scores. (The Children’s Defense Fund details this association through its Cradle to Prison Pipeline Campaign.) Additional stakeholders include a slew of corporate sponsors: Nordstrom’s, Microsoft, IBM, Revlon, Target, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and even AT&T.
Fact is, people in the U.S. aren’t committing more crime; we’re doing more time because it pays. We’re talking Third-World sweatshops disguised as rehab programs, possibly in your home state! This human rights infringement isn’t punishing someone who does wrong; it’s profiting from the pain of that punishment, exploiting the limited freedoms of inhumane confinement, maximizing such restrictive conditions for capital gain — the same profits that merely perpetuate the incarceration of more people for longer periods of time.
While poverty in the U.S. continues to plague the general public, job positions are going for $1 an hour in the private prison sector. No wonder we can’t find jobs; our furniture and home appliances are being produced by rent-a-slaves. Such control sounds eerily similar to the Black Belt’s Convict Lease System of the late 1800s, a state-run practice throughout the South that forcibly extracted free labor from newly emancipated slaves deemed “criminal.”
If this is what big business means by “Made in America,” I don’t want no parts of it.
Lilly is a contributing editor at the Triangle Free Press and recently served as an organizer with Cynthia McKinney’s Report from Libya Tour. He is also a Human Rights Delegate with Witness for Peace.
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