Southern plantation and business owners found themselves in a labor dilemma at the end of the Civil war. The slaves were freed, and many working-age white men had died or been maimed by bullets or camp diseases.
Some turned to an alternative source of cheap labor — convicts. It was a win-win situation — states and counties got paid and businesses and plantations got a steady supply of slaves they didn’t have to buy or maintain. The only losers were the mistreated convicts, a group that undoubtedly included a fair number wrongfully imprisoned by a system that saw them as potential profit.
The prison-plantation complex has a successor, called by some the prison-industrial complex. They argue that prison population has been artificially inflated through the political influence of privately owned and operated corporate penitentiaries.
The private prison model began around the same time as the start of the War on Drugs in the 1980s, when longer sentences for drug sale and possession began jamming state and federal prisons and stressing corrections budgets. The first contract for the complete operation of a prison was awarded in 1984 to the Corrections Corporation of America. The company’s shares sold for $1 in the year 2000 but had risen to $34 by 2013.
There were many similar corporate prison success stories. In 2013, 8.4 percent of state prisoners and almost 20 percent of federal prisoners were serving time in private institutions. In 2016 the Obama administration’s Department of Justice, citing a DOJ study that found private prisons were less safe for both inmates and guards, more prone to escapes and more punitive, declared that federal prisoners would no longer be sent to private facilities. But that blow to the private sector was short-lived; the Trump administration reversed that decision and prison stock prices soared again.
Privatization of most public services often leads to savings and better services, but there is conflicting evidence when it comes to private prisons. And when prisoners are seen a business commodities, as they were during Reconstruction in the South and in private prisons today, there is the danger of injustice. This is especially true when for-profit prison corporations contribute to lobbying organizations or form their own, like the American Correctional Association, which advocates for legislation favorable to the industry.
Private prisons stand to gain from harsher sentencing laws, including mandatory minimums, life sentences for three convictions and truth-in sentencing, which defers parole eligibility until 85 percent of a sentence is served. An unsettling question, to which we do not know the answer, is whether those laws would be as pervasive as they are if there were no private prison corporations funding lobbying efforts.
With justice and lives at stake, prison corporations should be barred from lobbying or political contributions as a condition of licensing. America has the highest rate of imprisonment of any major nation on earth, and it’s time to find ways to lose that distinction.
Martin Fey, a member of the Quiet Corner Tea Party Patriots, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.