Private prisons are exploiting the criminal justice system to turn immense profits—and it’s happening right under our noses.
By Lyndsey Reeve
Lyndsey Reeve is a freshman in the College with a prospective major in International Relations.
Prisons—unlike shorter-term jails—hold inmates for lengthy sentences received for serious offenses. While many prisons are public and thus government-operated, privatized incarceration can be a profit-generating machine: the more inmates, the more money a for-profit prison can raise. By capitalizing on the boom of the internment business, private enterprises such as Political Action Committees (PACs) can influence our modern political process. Because they are used to manipulate our criminal justice system for personal gain, these private prisons threaten our democracy.
Private prisons incentivize increasing inmate numbers and allowing conditions to deteriorate so special interest groups and corporations can maximize profits. As of 2014, 1 in 100 Americans were imprisoned . This number has increased in recent years. Ten years ago, there were only five private prisons in the United States. Today, over 100 exist. In fact, the U.S. has imprisoned more people than any other country—including China, which has five times the U.S. population . Not only is the number of inmates rapidly increasing in our country compared to other developed nations, but the prisons themselves are in abysmal conditions.
The Supreme Court found that private prisons were sometimes causing needless deaths. One California prison was so poorly maintained that one inmate died every day of entirely preventable causes. Not only did this violate the eighth amendment right to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, but it also caused a host of mental health issues among other inmates. In a 5-4 decision, Supreme Court justices elected to cut California’s prison population . Other states should take note of this discovery and investigate inmate treatment more thoroughly.
Furthermore, corporations have even begun exploiting inmates by using them for cheap labor. Companies including Microsoft, AT&T, Target, and Macy’s opt to employ inmates over non-inmates to make their products less expensive . The Progressive Labor Party explains the motive behind this, saying; “The private contracting of prisoners for work fosters incentives to lock people up. Prisons depend on this income. Corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners’ work lobby for longer sentences, in order to expand their workforce. The system feeds itself” . Evidently, corporate gain fuels private prisons (which receive a guaranteed amount of money per inmate), thus incentivizing an increase in inmate numbers. This is concerning, because not only does the for-profit industry offer a booming business, but covert misdeeds are better concealed due to a lack of government involvement and awareness.
After exploiting incarcerated individuals, for-profit prisons then use these funds to exert control over our modern political process. PACs— groups that supposedly do not “profit” from their dealings and aim to elect candidates— take the money they make via prisons to fund the election of candidates that propagate their ideologies. In only one year, GEO (a PAC funded by prison money) spent $518,390 on political contributions and approximately $730,000 on lobbying and used this money to help increase war on drug policies. These are some of the biggest policies responsible for increasing prisoners in the U.S., which in turn increases PAC money . This use of the system for individual benefit threatens our democratic process because both candidates and political office holders facing reelection bend to the will of such interest groups for much needed campaign dollars. Such control over policies allows special interests to continue to increase their income while harming American citizens—even those not incarcerated. When prison numbers increase, so does PAC money, and thusly private interest groups’ influence over politics also increases. Some of these organizations are 527 groups, and are thereby tax exempt. Therefore, not only are these groups exploiting Americans, but they are avoiding taxation on their unfairly-earned income. For example, GEO and similar PACs receive massive tax breaks and its increase of for-profit prisons costs taxpayers $39 billion.
Some proponents of the growing privatization of prisons may argue that the poor conditions of for-profit prisons are well-deserved. After all, individuals forfeit some of their rights when they decide to commit a crime. While this is legally true, it is important to note that many of the imprisoned are not first-rate criminals—they are not murderers, drug lords, or gang members. Of the over 2 million inmates in the U.S., the majority are black or Hispanic . Many of these are immigrants convicted of minor crimes and exploited for cheap labor.
In truth, there is a great motive for private prisons to unfairly maximize the number of inmates—the more prisoners, the more money they receive. Sadly, minority and low-income individuals are more vulnerable to the traps of for-profit prisons seeking lucrative inmates. “Federal law stipulates five years’ imprisonment without possibility of parole for possession of 5 grams of crack or 3.5 ounces of heroin, and 10 years for possession of less than 2 ounces of rock-cocaine or crack. A sentence of 5 years for cocaine powder requires possession of 500 grams – which is 100 times more than the quantity of rock cocaine for the same sentence. Most individuals who use cocaine powder are white, middle-class or rich people, while mostly Blacks and Latinos use rock cocaine”. Evidently, different standards apply to different racial groups and prejudice is ingrained in the system. Furthermore, new laws ignore an individual’s circumstances and require minimum sentencing, sometimes pushing jail time well past what is reasonable. In the case of one prisoner convicted of stealing a car and several bikes, a sentence was pushed to 75 years, which is more than some murderers receive . This seemingly excessive sentence is one of many that could be doled out to keep profits on the rise. In fact, crime has gone down in recent years, and yet the number of prisoners is climbing. This points to an issue with the structure of private imprisonment in our country.
Despite any opposition, the biggest obstacle that stands in the way of reducing the number of private prisons is a lack of awareness. Many forget that both our democracy and individual’s lives are at stake if we allow for-profit prisons to continue their manipulation of the criminal justice system. In order to prevent PAC control of public policy, protect the rights of inmates, and reduce monopolies that profit off human suffering, we must all take a stand to eliminate the privatization of prisons in the United States.
The opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.
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 Madel, Jacob D. “Do Political Contributions Influence Public Policy? The Case of Private Prisons.” DigitalGeorgetown Home. Georgetown University, January 1, 1970. https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/handle/10822/557796.
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