Profiting from prisons

Down&outerBy Joshua Russell

The United States considers itself to be a leader in many areas. One of the areas that we lead in, however, is a shameful one. The United States incarcerates more people (currently 2.2 million) at a higher rate than any other country in the world.

Misguided policies and laws, including mandatory minimum sentences, are one of the main reasons for this high incarceration rate. The past few decades have seen an unprecedented growth in the prison population in this country, followed by a huge growth in prison construction.

This led to the development of private, for-profit prisons. Private prisons were rare before the harsh sentencing policies of the “war on drugs” that began in the 1980s. As the federal and state governments put more and more people in prison, the costs began to grow as well. Many politicians believed that private prisons could save money, and the construction boom of what was previously a relatively unknown concept began. The number of prisoners held in private prisons grew by an astounding 1600 percent between 1990 and 2009.

Private prison corporations also began a lucrative but dangerous relationship with politicians at the state and federal levels. Private prisons are, of course, businesses that need to make profits. The more people that are imprisoned, the more money they make. Private prisons, with a current value of $3.3 billion in the United States, have a huge incentive to support politicians who embrace the unjust (but profitable) policies of “mass incarceration.”

Private prison corporations have contributed more than $10 million to politicians since 1989, and have spent $25 million on direct lobbying work. The private prison industry is now a significant factor in opposing much-needed reforms to the criminal justice system in this country. Given the amount of money they have, the amount of political influence they wield, and the sheer number of prisoners they hold (six percent of all state prisoners and sixteen percent of federal), private prison corporations hold tremendous power.

What, then, is to be done?

For the United States to have a truly “just” criminal justice system, incentives to simply lock more people up, without taking their needs and context into account, must be removed. Find out whether your members of Congress receive contributions from for-profit prison corporations. If so, encourage them to stop taking such contributions.

As with so many other aspects of mass incarceration, private prisons provide an easy, but too often immoral and unjust, option for the people who hold the power in our government and criminal justice system. As Christians and Anabaptists we should call on our leaders to remove this roadblock on the path towards ending mass incarceration and establishing true justice.

Learn more about MCC’s work in restorative justice and consider joining us for a “Pipeline to prison” learning tour September 20-26.