Incarcerating people of color more profitable for private companies

graphic by Chris Petrella and Josh Begley
graphic by Chris Petrella and Josh Begley

Thanks to the failed war on drugs, we are already what David Simon has dubbed “the jailingest country on the planet.” Decades of tough-on-crime posting have created an environment in which few politicians are bold enough to challenge the status quo. Politicians eager to fill their campaign coffers now have yet another reason to perpetuate and exacerbate a fundamentally flawed system as private prison companies use their influence to increase the profitability of mass incarceration.

The millions of dollars private prison companies spend to influence lawmakers is not surprisingly resulting in more poor policy. Think Progress covered a report on these activities a few years ago:

According to JPI, the private prison industry uses three strategies to influence public policy: lobbying, direct campaign contributions, and networking. The three main companies have contributed $835,514 to federal candidates and over $6 million to state politicians. They have also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on direct lobbying efforts. CCA has spent over $900,000 on federal lobbying and GEO spent anywhere from $120,000 to $199,992 in Florida alone during a short three-month span this year. Meanwhile, “the relationship between government officials and private prison companies has been part of the fabric of the industry from the start,” notes the report. The cofounder of CCA himself used to be the chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party.

The impact that the private prison industry has had is hard to deny. In Arizona, 30 of the 36 legislators who co-sponsored the state’s controversial immigration law that would undoubtedly put more immigrants behind bars received campaign contributions from private prison lobbyists or companies. Private prison businesses been involved in lobbying efforts related to a bill in Florida that would require privatizing all of the prisons in South Florida and have been heavily involved in appropriations bills on the federal level.

That same year saw a scandal in which a Pennsylvania judge was passing down draconian sentences to children because he was receiving kickbacks to send them to private youth detention centers.

Now a new study shows that the profit motive results in people of color making up an even larger share of inmates in private prisons. Why? They’re cheaper. 

Why would African American and Latino prisoners be cheaper to incarcerate than whites? Because older prisoners are significantly more expensive than younger ones. “Based on historical sentencing patterns, if you are a prisoner today, and you are over 50 years old, there is a greater likelihood that you are white,” Petrella explained to “If you are under 50 years old — particularly if you’re closer to 30 years old — you’re more likely to be a person of color.” He cited a 2012 report by the ACLU which found that it costs $34,135 per year to house a non-geriatric prisoner, compared with $68,270 for a prisoner age 50 or older.

The war on drugs has swept so many people of color into the prison system in recent years that they make up a much higher portion of the younger prisoners. Private prison companies find ways to write parameters into their contracts so the burden of caring for older, more expensive, and more likely white prisoners stays with the states.

Chris Petrella, who conducted the study, emphasizes a lesson that must be applied to a whole range of racial justice issues in an age when people want to claim a post-racial society:

“One of the reasons I think the study’s important is that it continues to show how laws — and even contractual stipulations — that are, on the surface, race-neutral, continue to have a disproportionate and negative impact on communities of color.”

Weekend reading

overlay of MLK Jr. Way in over race map of Oakland, via Colorlines
overlay of MLK Jr. Way over race map of Oakland, via Colorlines

Residents of neighborhoods with a street named after Martin Luther King are $6,000 poorer than those in neighborhoods without one.

Characters who have, or just think about having, abortions in movies and TV often die.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: “The desire to put a history of American racism, which is to say a portion of America’s roots, in a corner is a kind of wish-fulfillment.”

President Obama draws attention to unjust application of drug laws, noting, “We should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.”

Fear begets fear: political paralysis on crime and terrorism

Politicians and pundits constantly drum up fear to move their political agendas. While the manipulative nature of the fear-mongering is frustrating, it’s nothing compared to the serious damage that is done by resulting policies. Enemies like Osama bin Laden and boogie men like Willie Horton have led to sprawling “wars” with no defined end that eat up our resources  and ruin (and often end) lives. The campaigns of fear around crime and terrorism have paralyzed our political process in a way that politicians concerned about reelection are too afraid to defy these counterproductive and unjust frameworks.

This is coming to the fore in California, where the courts have stepped in to mandate the release of thousands of prisoners from our state’s overcrowded prisons. Rather than using this court order as an opportunity to remedy a broken system, Governor Jerry Brown proposes to squander much-needed tax dollars on an even worse proposal:

Over the summer, Brown revealed a plan to spend what could end up being the bulk of the state’s $1 billion emergency reserve fund – money that is supposed to be spent in the event of an emergency – to finance the transfer of people from California’s overcrowded detention facilities into privately run prisons. “Brown said the alternative is to allow 10,000 prison inmates to go free.”

“It’s going to take some money, make no doubt about it,” Brown said of defying the federal government. But, “Public safety is the priority and we’ll take care of it,” he said, “the money is there.” The estimated cost of transferring the prisoners is about equal to what the state cut in funding for the University of California system between 2008 and 2012.

Refusing to acknowledge the real problem is an injustice to people in and out of prison. Thousands of nonviolent offenders not only unnecessarily languish in prison, but are then systematically shut out from opportunities to improve their lives, feeding a vicious cycle (if you haven’t read Michelle Alexander’s brilliant The New Jim Crow, which chronicles the ripple effects of mass incarceration, stop what you’re doing and go get it). Directing our tax dollars to private prisons continues a disturbing trend of injecting a profit motive into a broken, unjust system. And as Charles Davis points out in his piece, it means a billion dollars that could help with anything from education to emergency preparedness is squandered.

In talking to activists working on this issue, it’s clear that even some politicians who recognize the need for fundamental change are too afraid to take responsibility for it. Nobody wants to be the politician who let Willie Horton out of jail. So you get a “liberal” governor in a blue state ignoring proven solutions and exacerbating a devastating problem.

This resonated for me after ten years of organizing for a more just foreign policy during the so-called “war on terror.” Gregory Johnsen has a thorough and valuable piece about the history of the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed shortly after September 11th and the never-ending war it spawned:

More than a dozen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, this is what America’s war looks like, silent strikes and shadowy raids. The Congressional Research Service, an analytical branch of the Library of Congress, recently said that it had located at least 30 similar occurrences, although the number of covert actions is likely many times higher with drones strikes and other secret operations. The remarkable has become regular.

The White House said that the operations in both Libya and Somalia drew their authority from the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a 12-year-old piece of legislation that was drafted in the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks. At the heart of the AUMF is a single 60-word sentence, which has formed the legal foundation for nearly every counterterrorism operation the U.S. has conducted since Sept. 11, from Guantanamo Bay and drone strikes to secret renditions and SEAL raids. Everything rests on those 60 words.

More than a dozen years since that law was passed, there has not been a significant challenge to the “war on terror” framework. Johnsen chronicles how Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) bravely stood up as the lone vote against the original AUMF, even though some of her colleagues indicated behind the scenes that they shared her concerns about the resolution. The difficulty of casting that vote a few days after September 11th is clear (Lee faced outrage and death threats), but with twelve years of distance we are still only chipping away at the injustices it engendered. Again, politicians swing too far in the wrong direction, that overcompensation an insurance policy against charges of being soft on terrorism that could be linked to an attack on their watch.

While some of the most egregious actions, like throwing up roadblocks to transferring innocent people from Guantanamo, have been led by Republicans, most Democrats haven’t challenged the orthodoxy. People from both parties praised President Obama for the targeted assassination of U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki, despite the fact that the threat he posed has been called into question and the frightening precedent set by this act. Some leaders in Congress are pushing for greater transparency around the administration’s targeted killing policy, but few are willing to substantively challenge the entrenched mentality that has led to torture, incarceration of innocent people, racial profiling, and hundreds of civilian casualties.

Mulling this over brought me back to a revealing (though not terribly surprising) moment in John Oliver’s masterful pieces on gun control on The Daily Show. When asking Sen. Harry Reid’s staffer about what makes a politician successful, he responds with “getting reelected.” It’s a telling slip up. The challenges to sanity on these issues don’t make change impossible, and we have an obligation to work as hard as we can to undo these injustices. It reminds us that we need to increase the political cost of supporting these unjust, dangerous and counterproductive wars.