While Barack Obama has placed prison reform front and center on the policy agenda this year, those seeking the office are broaching a critical element of the debate that has yet to be discussed federally: private prisons. It’s become a hot button issue in the last couple months as it was revealed that Hillary Clinton’s campaign accepted donations from private prisons, and Bernie Sanders pledged to ban them altogether.
I response to that, Vox author Dara Lind penned an article suggesting that Black Lives Matter campaigners focus less time and energy on ending private prisons. While by no means should it be the only locus for critique (and of course they shouldn’t “settle” for those promises, but is anyone actually suggesting they would??), the prison-industrial complex is a linchpin in a broken system, and to suggest otherwise is to vastly underestimate the role such companies play in perpetuating it.
Lind and her colleague may be right that private prisons did not necessarily cause the initial levels of mass incarceration that have led to prison over-population and detention levels beyond those anywhere else in the world. But private prisons most certainly have played a role in maintaining those levels and through lobbying efforts and policy, and I beg to disagree, but they most certainly have played a role in perpetuating it.
I certainly agree that one of the most immediate impacts of ending private prisons would be on immigrant detainees, especially given the almost ludicrous minimum quota systems in place at many facilities. And yes, in the grand scheme of things, the $133,000 donated by private prison companies to the Hilary Clinton campaign may seem like small potatoes. But over the last two decades or so, we’re talking about tens of millions being donated directly to political campaigns and to lobbying efforts. Campaign funding is just the tip of the influence iceberg.
Because it’s important to look closely at the lobbying efforts of these organizations at the local and state levels—focusing on presidential campaign funding will simply not give you a clear picture of the kind of influence these companies have on the ground. When you start looking at their operations and efforts in places like California and Arizona, you see how many lives are really being affected. Because the individuals being targeted by the kinds of policies private prisons are lobbying for are precisely the reason why the Black Lives Matter campaign exists.
It’s fine to show a graph that shows that incarceration rates were already on the rise prior to privatization of state prisons, but to draw the conclusion that they still represent only a symptom is to be viewing the situation with blinders on, removing all context and experience from an issue that necessitates the inclusion of precisely those elements.
It’s frustrating to see people with a platform such a platform so dramatically misrepresent what the role of the prison-industrial complex has been in perpetuating cycles of poverty and recidivism. It’s especially frustrating to see someone citing crime rates as a justifiable rationale for excessively punitive policies. Even though the author concedes mass incarceration was not the appropriate response, she fails to recognize that crime rates are rarely indicative of the actual levels of crime; any beginner criminology course will teach you crime rates are strictly representative of police activities in any given jurisdiction. Further, that police activity is contingent on legislative changes which either increase or decrease the criminalization of particular activities—like drug possession—precisely the kinds of legislation private companies have been playing a direct role in influencing. When you attempt to analyze policies without recognizing such crucial context, you are leaving key elements out of your analysis; the conclusions will necessarily be flawed.
It is simply not in the interest of private prison companies to advocate for the kind of prison reform that is needed in this country. Why would they directly advocate themselves out of existence? The prison-industrial complex went beyond simply being a symptom of the problem to a causal entity the moment they began advocating for continued mandatory minimums and for increased immigrant detainees, when they began actively gouging the families of inmates into bankruptcy through exploitive practices and undermining prison education efforts.