The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. One out of every 100 people in the U.S is in jail — most of them for non-violent crimes — and one in three black men will go to prison during his lifetime. While many blame the detention of immigrants or the unnecessary and catastrophic war on drugs for the high number of incarcerations, there is an underlying reason why laws are being passed that lead to an excessively high number of individuals serving jail time.
For-profit prison companies enjoy an extremely high level of influence over lawmakers in the United States, a fact that allows them to earn enormous sums of money at the expense of individuals who are locked into an increasingly unforgiving judicial system. If not addressed soon, the effects of this trend could be detrimental for American society.
The U.S. health care system, which has left over 45 million Americans uninsured and unable to access affordable health care, is a heinous example of capitalism run amuk. As information becomes more readily available about the current situation in America’s private prisons, prison tales may soon be on par with America’s many health care horror stories.
As Jill Filipovic recently reported in the Guardian, “The shifting of government responsibilities to private actors isn’t without consequence, as privatization often comes with a lack of oversight and a series of abuses.” When the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF) in May, many examples of these abuses were revealed.
While it would be easy to claim that the horrifying case of the EMCF is an isolated one, private prisons are becoming famous for human rights abuses. To make matters worse, they are often exempt from federal disclosure laws, meaning that most cases of abuse go unreported and unnoticed.
When we take into consideration the influence that companies specializing in incarceration wield over the lawmakers who determine who will be incarcerated and for how long, the situation is even more appalling. For-profit prison companies use lobbying and direct campaign contributions to promote policies that ensure a higher level of incarceration, leading to greater profit margins for their companies and stockholders. The three largest prison companies have spent approximately $45,000,000 over the past decade to influence lawmakers, and the largest of the three, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), is now a multi-billion dollar per year business. The profitability of these companies ensures their ability to lobby effectively and put more people behind bars. The fact that the federal private prison population rose by 784% between 1999-2010 speaks volumes about the success of these campaigns.
As the state began to experiment with the privatization of prisons approximately 30 years ago, policy makers claimed that the private sector would be capable of operating prisons at a lower cost than the state, while simultaneously maintaining the same level of security within the facilities.
To any logical observer, however, this assumption makes absolutely no sense. The main goal of a private company is to increase revenue, which in the case of private prisons means prioritizing profit over humane living conditions. Theoretically, a prison should maintain a decent standard of living for inmates and work towards their rehabilitation. However, when a company’s aim is to make a profit, the well-being of the prisoners comes second, if it enters into the equation at all. Private companies in the United States have turned incarceration into a money-making scheme that encourages longer sentences while lowering the costs of prison maintenance. While one could argue that private prisons could be reformed so that human rights abuses do not occur, there is still something essentially wrong with a business that relies on incarcerating a greater number of people every year in order to turn a profit. Under these circumstances, it is inevitable that the well-being of prisoners will be ignored at best.
Meanwhile, private companies aggressively lobby to ensure that more individuals end up spending years of their lives in these conditions. If the U.S government does not intervene to stop this horrific trend, the country may end up with a population of over 2 million deeply disturbed individuals, casualties of the American judicial system.