Ran up in Our Spot, Just to Get They Stacks Up
30 years ago, America’s government jump-started a private prison industry that profited off incarcerating the voiceless — to reform, we must stop punishing these marginalized communities and start investing in them.
Nothing motivates people like money. Car dealers charm families into minivans to get sales bonuses. CEO’s pinch pennies to earn extra stock options. Realtors drive home buyers hundreds of miles to ensure the closing commission. Even if you slept through Econ 101, the relationship between financial incentives and rational self-interest makes sense — people will work hard if there is a reward.
But what if instead of selling cars or cutting cost, the actions being incentivized were malicious — insidious even.
In 1984, Hamilton County, Tennessee signed the first government contract paying a for-profit company to imprison citizens. By 1986, the contract’s recipient, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) had generated 14 million dollars in revenue from Hamilton and other municipalities.
By bankrolling lucrative subsidies, tax breaks, financing, and training grants to CCA, the government incentivized the construction of more for-profit prisons and the incarceration of more citizens. Soon startups like Wackenhut Corrections Corporation and Pricor Inc replicated the CCA’s business model. Together, these companies pioneered the Prison Industrial Complex, a network of businesses that would grow rich from imprisoning the country’s most vulnerable populations.
In his 2015 cover article, Ta-Nehisi Coates highlighted how marginalized groups were targeted to fill these prison cells:
“A series of risk factors — mental illness, illiteracy, drug addiction, poverty — increases one’s chances of ending up in the ranks of the incarcerated. ‘Roughly half of today’s prison inmates are functionally illiterate,’ … ‘Four out of five criminal defendants qualify as indigent before the courts.’ Sixty-eight percent of jail inmates were struggling with substance dependence or abuse in 2002… [Prisons] draw from the most socioeconomically unfortunate among us…”
The United States runs the most powerful economy in the world, but instead of using it to create shared prosperity for all, we have leveraged it to industrialize the systematic punishment and imprisonment of the poor, the sick, and the marginalized.
But finally, after decades of daring scholarship from writers and activists like Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander, the profiteering of private prisons has been exposed. Books like The Prison Industrial Complex and The New Jim Crow have helped conjure the reformist climate currently occupying Washington. Today, mainstream presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton call for the end of private prisons, but if politicians are truly to end the incarceration industry, they must avoid the lip-service reform typical of past movements.
“If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that is not progress. Even if you pull it all the way out, that is not progress. Progress is healing the wound, and America hasn’t even begun to pull out the knife.” — Malcolm X
After years of exploiting marginalized communities, state and federal governments just can’t, “stop and call it even”. That is not how justice works, nor how equality is created. Real reform doesn't merely demand the closure of private prisons, but it requires investment to help communities recover from years of oppression.
One of the most painful consequences of the Prison Industrial Complex is mass unemployment. Depending on the laws of the state, ex-cons can be barred from working as realtors, barbers, teachers, nail technicians, nurses, and many other professions. And even in the limited occupations that ex-cons can pursue, most of the employers aren’t willing to look beyond the stigma of a prison record. If reformers want to revitalize the communities blighted by over-incarceration, they must help ex-cons secure employment.
In 2006, Barack Obama explained how legislation could help begin this process:
“Government could kick-start a transformation of circumstances for these men by working with private-sector contractors to hire and train ex-felons on projects that can benefit the community as a whole: insulating homes and offices to make them energy-efficient, perhaps, or laying broadband lines needed to thrust entire communities into the internet age. Such projects will cost money, of course — although given the annual cost of incarcerating an inmate, any drop in recidivism would help the program pay for itself.”
Here, Obama outlines how the same kind of government funding that the built private prison industry, can be used to heal over-incarcerated communities. But while partisanship and gridlock has hindered politicians from making this a reality, social entrepreneurs have started tackling ex-con unemployment across the country.
From Homeboy Industries training and employing former gang members and the previously incarcerated in bakeries and cafes in California to Sweet Beginnings LLC hiring ex-cons to produce honey-based beauty products at its five apiaries in Chicago, social enterprises are supporting returning citizens in their communities. As we disassemble the Prison Industrial Complex, we must reroute funding from companies like the CCA that imprison our people, to enterprises like Sweet Beginnings that empower them.
In 1965, following the success of the sit-in movement Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. posed a question highlighting the need for reform beyond desegregation:
“What good does it do to be able to eat at a lunch counter if you can’t buy a hamburger?”
Fifty years later as we consider prison reform, a similar question could be asked:
“What good does it do to be free in a society that refuses to employ you?”
It’s time we learn from our history. King understood that civil rights policy changes were incomplete without corresponding economic investment. If today’s political leaders are to reverse the damage of the prison industry, they will heed King’s advice and ensure that in addition to less biased, more accountable policing, returning citizens will have access to economic opportunity and employment.
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