Ending private prisons; next steps

The U.S. Justice Department today announced (NPR) that private prisons will be phased out. What a rare piece of heartening good news in the relentless weirdscape of 2016.

From that link:

Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, nonetheless said the Justice Department announcement represented a “major milestone in the movement away from mass incarceration.”

“It has been a stain on our democracy to permit profit-making entities to be handed the responsibility of making determinations of individual liberty,” Mauer said in a prepared statement. “Today’s action moves us closer to a moment when government can once again assume this important responsibility.”

Stocks for private prison corporations are taking a beating after the news. However, dips of around 25-40% in the stock prices reflect that these institutions are not dead yet. Probable legal challenges and lucrative business not covered by the Justice Department’s decision limit the damage so far. In particular, state-level contracts seem not to be covered by this, and there is also the disgusting scourge of for-profit immigration detention centers to be fought.

Like felons, immigrants and people in transit across borders are routinely denied anything like constitutional protection, and to compound their indignity this way is inexcusable. As always we have to seek political coalitions that find a way to represent the disenfranchised. In that spirit we all tip our caps in particular to Mother Jones, whose remarkable reporting contributed to today’s news.

It’s tough to think of a more perverse idea than private, for-profit prisons. From Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow:

There is also the private-sector investment to consider. Prisons are big business and have become deeply entrenched in America’s economic and political system. Rich and powerful people, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, have invested millions in private prisons. They are deeply interested in expanding the market—increasing the supply of prisoners—not eliminating the pool of people who can be held captive for a profit. The 2005 annual report for the Corrections Corporation of America explained the vested interests of private prisons matter-of-factly in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission:

Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. This possible growth depends on a number of factors we cannot control, including crime rates and sentencing patterns in various jurisdictions and acceptance of privatization. The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the  decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.

American Correctional Association President Gwendolyn Chunn put the matter more bluntly that same year when lamenting that the unprecedented prison expansion boom of the 1990s seemed to be leveling off. “We’ll have a hard time holding on to what we have now,” she lamented.As it turns out, her fears were unfounded. Although prison growth appeared to be slowing in 2005, the market for prisoners has continued to expand. The nation’s prison population broke new records in 2008, with no end in sight. The nonprofit PEW Charitable Trusts reports that inmate populations in at least ten states are expected to increase by 25 percent or more between 2006 and 2011. In short, the market for private prisons is as good as it has ever been. Damon Hininger, the president and chief operations officer of Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private-prison operator in the United States, is thoroughly optimistic. His company boosted net income by 14 percent in 2008, and he fully expects the growth to continue. “There is going to be a larger opportunity for us in the future,” he said.

The amount of work still to be done in systemic criminal justice reform is vast:

Even beyond private prison companies, a whole range of prison profiteers must be reckoned with if mass incarceration is to be undone, including phone companies that gouge families of prisoners by charging them exorbitant rates to communicate with their loved ones; gun manufacturers that sell Taser guns, rifles, and pistols to prison guards and police; private health care providers contracted by the state to provide (typically abysmal) health care to prisoners; the U.S. military, which relies on prison labor to provide military gear to soldiers in Iraq; corporations that use prison labor to avoid paying decent wages; and the politicians, lawyers, and bankers who structure deals to build new prisons often in predominately white rural communities—deals that often promise far more to local communities than they deliver. All of

these corporate and political interests have a stake in the expansion—not the elimination—of the system of mass incarceration…

If we hope to end this system of control, we cannot be satisfied with a handful of reforms. All of the financial incentives granted to law enforcement to arrest poor black and brown people for drug offenses must be revoked. Federal grant money for drug enforcement must end; drug forfeiture laws must be stripped from the books; racial profiling must be eradicated; the concentration of drug busts in poor  communities of color must cease; and the transfer of military equipment and aid to local law enforcement agencies waging the drug war must come to a screeching halt. And that’s just for starters.
Today we have a great step in the right direction. Let’s hope we can build on this momentum.

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