For the first time in years, a voiceless people across the United States is finally being empowered to help solve what I believe is the greatest problem facing America. Over the past year, a set of leaders, including Pope Francis, Barack Obama, comedian John Oliver, politician Bernie Sanders and rapper Talib Kweli, have spoken out against mass incarceration and the injustices of our prison system. Pope Francis, during his first visit to the U.S., decided to eschew meeting with millionaires and prominent politicians in order to instead speak at the Curran Fromhold Correctional Facility, the largest prison in Philadelphia, to call on the prison system to reassume its goal of restorative, rather than retributive, justice.
In the past, the only contact everyday Americans had with prisons were through references to “dropping the soap” and shows like “America’s Hardest Prisons” and “Lockup,” which glamorized imprisonment and created a mindset that prisoners are inherently very different than us. It also contributed to a culture that discouraged empathy towards an already unrepresented population, as inmates cannot vote and are inherently cordoned off from the rest of society.
However, the media is starting to change its stance on how it depicts inmates and the system from a site holding and protecting us from hardened, violent criminals to a system that fails to rehabilitate people who might have made one unlucky mistake.
With a show like Orange is the New Black running in many family homes, we can no longer simply ignore in popular culture the fact that so many of the 1.5 million people currently imprisoned are perfectly relatable people who have simply become a part of the prison-industrial complex due to socioeconomic conditions, minor mistakes and drug offenses. Moreover, the system crystallizes the racial, gender and class stereotypes, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, since the prison system is already where we get many of our stereotypes of blacks, Hispanics and men as violent criminals and that very system is rigged against these sectors, the prison system serves as a feedback loop that confirms the very stereotypes that we have been led to believe because of the rules of the system, in which drug abuse and failing to pay payday loans are jailable offenses.
This graph should be taken with a grain of salt with regards to its exact accuracy, but it clearly shows the dramatic increase in incarcerated Americans.
It is ridiculous and goes against almost all of our American ideals that the United States, a country built on the ideals of freedom and second chances, can have 1 percent of its population in prisons, and hold more people in jails than any other country in the world. (The United States currently holds about 20-25 percent of the world’s prison population behind bars.) Thus, while we have made progress, if we do not continue talking about this issue, no change will occur, as the system has simply become a reality of American life for too many.
The biggest insult of this system, and the one which may just appall you the most, is undoubtedly private or for-profit prisons. For-profit prisons are institutions in which individuals are physically confined or incarcerated by a third party that is contracted by a government agency. Private prison companies typically enter into contractual agreements with governments that commit prisoners and then pay a per diem or monthly rate for each prisoner in the facility.
As recently as 2011, private prisons took in around $5 billion in revenue and large prison companies like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which is valued at $3.7 billion, are widely traded on the NYSE. To make matters worse, more private prisons are scheduled to be built, as privatization was originally thought to cut costs from a very expensive industry that can already cost around $50,000 to house a prisoner per year. However, there is clear research that private prisons are actually more costly, more violent and less accountable than public prisons. Basic economics can intuitively show us how privatizing prisons can only be harmful.
Unlike public prisons, private prisons are motivated by shareholders’ needs to make money. Thus, like any private company, prisons are governed by two microeconomic principles: namely, increasing revenues and cutting costs. However, these two goals conflict directly with the idea of restoring and rehabilitating prisoners, lowering recidivism rates and caring for human rights. And the consequences are devastatingly morbid and life-shattering.
By increasing revenues, many prisons are incentivized to ensure that prisoners stay in the prison-industrial system and are disincentivized to rehabilitate prisoners. In fact, the $3.7 billion private prison giant CCA touted “high recidivism” as a reason private prisons are a “unique investment opportunity” in a recent shareholders’ report. This is unjust and ultimately immoral.
On the spending side, in order to cut costs, private prisons have been proven to cut corners on medical treatment, food quality and adequate staff training, which leads to a more unhealthy and ultimately more violent and unsafe environment for both inmates and staff.
For example, assaults on both staff and inmates have increased in private prisons, and female prisoners have protested about a lack of adequate female hygiene products in these settings. While private prisons do exist in other countries, they are seen as negative and strong efforts have been made to eradicate them, as demonstrated by Israel.
Israel ruled that private prisons were unconstitutional, finding that for the State to transfer authority for managing the prison to a private contractor whose aim is monetary profit would severely violate the prisoners’ basic human rights to dignity and freedom. And, across the world, no other country can believe that this happens under America’s watch. In the same way that Guantanamo has left a stain on America and provided a rationale for groups like ISIS to villainize the U.S., it is only a matter of time before this happens in full force with regard to mass incarceration. I have already read press releases from North Korea criticizing the U.S. for its “race-based prison tactics.” If getting criticized by North Korea isn’t enough to change our ways, I do not know what can.
Ultimately, the problem with mass incarceration and private prisons is simple: If we don’t know what we’re fighting against or who we need to protect, we are useless. If we can’t hear their screams and cries for change in a sea of injustice, how will we ever take action? The private and public prison system has taken us for a ride too long, destroying millions of nonviolent lives in its wake and perpetuating the stereotypes that have harmed America under the radar. It is time that we take action and change the system, that may not affect us directly today, but threatens the very continuation of the ideals we hold as Americans.
Contact Kyle D’Souza at kvdsouza ‘at’ stanford.edu.