Abolish For-Profit Prisons

Senator Bernie Sanders contributed an essay to a new Brennan Center publication, “Ending Mass Incarceration: Ideas from Today’s Leaders.” The essay is below:

The United States imprisons more people than any other country on earth. Year after year, we continue to exceed every nation — including authoritarian governments like China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran — for the highest incarceration rate in the world.[1] And we will never be able to end mass incarceration until we ban private prisons and make it clear that our justice system exists to rehabilitate people, not to make money for corporations.

It is no secret that racial disparities are deeply ingrained in our criminal justice system. In comparison to just one in seventeen white men, as many as one in three black men and one in six Latino men are likely to be incarcerated at least once in their lives.[2] Since we began the so-called War on Drugs, imprisonment rates in the United States have skyrocketed, exacerbated in part by sentencing laws aimed at locking up men of color. And we are just now starting to reckon with and undo the legacy of the “tough on crime” 1980s and 1990s. Imprisonment rates in the United States have increased by a dramatic 700 percent since 1970 due to draconian sentencing policies, causing unnecessarily overcrowded prisons across the nation.[3] Rather than reduce overcrowding by amending sentencing laws, federal and state governments decided to contract with private prisons.

The two largest companies in the for-profit prison industry, CoreCivic and GEO Group, own the lion’s share of private prisons in America — and they are growing off the backs of the current administration’s appalling immigration policies. During fiscal year 2017, the vast majority of immigrant detainees were held in private facilities.

Any system that continues to keep human beings behind bars and in prison beds as a revenue stream is a system that must be drastically overhauled. Private prisons have a greater interest in filling the pockets of their shareholders by perpetuating imprisonment than they do in spending money to rehabilitate and educate.

Financial motives have corrupted our justice system. Perverse incentives fuel the unnecessary caging of our fellow human beings at every step. Along with the private prison industry, these incentives range from our money bail system exploiting and jailing the poor while it frees the rich, to police officers being rewarded based on number of arrests, to prosecutors getting promoted for securing convictions and harsh prison sentences, to billions in federal grants going to states and cities running on autopilot to drive more arrests, convictions, and prison sentences.

There are many ways we must go forward to fix our criminal justice system: abolishing cash bail and civil asset forfeiture, ending the school-to-prison pipeline, and making it easier for formerly incarcerated people to reintegrate into society, for starters. But we absolutely must end the existence of the private for-profit prison industry.

To keep costs down, for-profit prisons pick and choose prisoners who require fewer services. Despite their claims, they do not lower recidivism rates — in fact, it’s in their interest to keep their beds full because they earn more money that way. Several years back, the inspector general for the Department of Justice found that private prisons allow a greater number of safety and security incidents.[4]

These findings are no surprise given the private prison industry’s racist roots in American chattel slavery. Prison privatization expanded rapidly when the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery but continued to permit unpaid penal labor, was ratified during the aftermath of the Civil War. Due to an extreme shortage of labor caused by the emancipation of slaves, former Confederate states exploited the legalization of penal labor by incarcerating newly freed black people.

States imprisoned black people mainly by enacting unjust vagrancy laws, essentially making it a crime to be unemployed and poor. In many regards, black people were suppressed into the same inhumane and backbreaking plantation work they had previously done while in chains and shackles.

In the decades after the Civil War, state-operated prisons reaped extreme profits from the free labor of black people, and as prison rates increased over decades, an incentive developed for private prisons to enter this barbaric market. Our criminal justice system must make amends with this grim and racist past.

In 2016, the Obama administration took a strong step in the right direction by announcing a plan for the federal government to wean itself from its reliance on private prisons. It should astonish nobody that President Trump’s Department of Justice rescinded the 2016 plan by the Obama Administration to phase out private prisons. In just a single month after President Trump assumed office, the stock of GEO Group increased 98 percent, and CoreCivic increased 140 percent.[5] This reprehensible reversal comes as our incarceration system faces mounting problems like the aging of already outdated facilities and a maturing inmate population. We cannot rely on the industrial complex of the private prison system to address these challenges in good faith.

The federal government must take several immediate steps to abolish the for-profit prison industry. Initial actions should include barring federal, state, and local government contracts with private entities that operate prison and custody facilities, ending family detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and ensuring the humane treatment of detainees by implementing third-party audits of detention centers. I have previously introduced legislation, called the Justice Is Not for Sale Act, which would accomplish all of these urgent steps.

But while we must take these steps to end the private for-profit prison industry, we must also address the harder, core problem of mass incarceration and greatly reducing the prison population. And that is why simultaneously reinstating the federal parole system while abolishing all mandatory minimums is also necessary. By doing this, we will provide a real incentive for prisoners to engage in good behavior and get out of prison sooner.

The bottom line here is that we need major reforms in our criminal justice system. Making sure that corporations are not profiteering from incarceration is an important step forward. Justice cannot be a board game for billionaires.

[1] Matthew Cooke and Adrian Grenier, “3 Things You Can Do to End Police Killings and Fix the Criminal Justice System,” HuffPost, December 10, 2014, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/matthew-cooke/3-things-you-can-do-to-en_b_6301470.html.

[2] Saki Knafo, “1 in 3 Black Males Will Go to Prison in Their Lifetime, Report Warns,” HuffPost, October 4, 2013, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/04/racial-disparities-criminal-justice_n_4045144.html.

[3] ACLU, “Mass Incarceration,” accessed February 27, 2019, https://www.aclu.org/issues/smart-justice/mass-incarceration.

[4] U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Monitoring of Contract Prisons, 2016, 14, https://oig.justice.gov/reports/2016/e1606.pdf.

[5] Heather Long, “Private Prison Stocks Up 100% Since Trump’s Win,” CNN, February 24, 2017, https://money.cnn.com/2017/02/24/investing/private-prison-stocks-soar-trump/index.html.