If there’s any phenomenon that epitomizes the dystopian state of America’s worst human rights epidemic of the modern era – mass criminalization and disenfranchisement of whole swaths of our society – it’s the privatization of prisons. It sounds like something we’d just make movies about: judges taking bribes by profit-driven corporations to send children to prison for minor school infractions; prison guards complacent or compliant with unmitigated violence; no accountability for how we confine people in the land of the free.
It’s no coincidence that the privatization of prisons in the US began flourishing in the 1980s – when the Reagan administration launched the War on Drugs. Arrests, rates of incarceration (and school suspensions) began soaring at unprecedented levels. The irony of prison privatization is that the primary rationale – “efficiency”, saving taxpayer dollars – is, in truth, false. “Research to date on private prisons has found that they perform no better than publicly operated facilities, are not guaranteed to reduce correctional costs, and provide an incentive for increasing correctional and detention populations.” (sentencingproject.org) And, just like some of our other most lucrative profiteering industries, like oil and private security firms (e.g. Blackwater), the biggest private prison corporations receive loads of government subsidies. A report developed by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy finds “that such subsidies are quite prevalent: Nearly three-quarters of the large prisons in the United States that were privately built and operated have received at least one form of economic development subsidy.”
A lesser-publicized, but strategically directed message given by our government has been that private prisons, like any great entrepreneurial venture, help create jobs. In keeping with capitalism’s penchant for aligning perverse incentives, not only do big corporations profit off (disproportionately brown) people’s imprisonment, but poor (predominantly white) communities vie to draw these titans of industry to their domains. Local taxpayers’ dollars are used as financial incentives to “win” contracts for private prisons in what Federal Reserve officers at one point described as “economic war among the states.”
Divide and conquer.
I do think more and more people are becoming aware that the US leads the world in rates of incarceration and citizen disenfranchisement, and that’s a good step in the right direction. But what’s less known it seems, is that we’re also leading the way in privatizing prisons. English speaking nations are dominating the trend. As the Sentencing Project’s report on International Growth Trends in Prison Privatization outlines, “While the United States maintains the highest total number of privately held prisoners, Australia, Scotland, England and Wales, and New Zealand hold a larger proportion of prisoners in private facilities, with a high of 19 percent in Australia.” And thus, of course, “these developments have helped private U.S. prison companies diversify their investments at a time when America’s prison population growth has stalled. For example, 14 percent of the revenue for America’s second largest private prison company, The GEO Group, came from international services in fiscal year 2012.”
As always, US corporations will seek new global pastures when domestic obstacles (like our prison population growth stalling) get in the way.
I’d rather be provocative than debilitating, so I’ll stop at the title of this little piece: where are we as a civilization when we can buy options on futures that literally increase in value as the options on other human beings’ futures diminish to zero?
We need a new approach to such an old paradigm. Chefs, derivative architects, painters, teachers, real estate moguls, app developers, athletic coaches… all hands on deck could make for some (as yet) unimaginable change.