By Garrett Jennings
On September 9th, the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, over 20,000 prisoners across 24 states began the largest prison strike in United States history against what Michelle Alexander calls "the New Jim Crow". In a criminal justice system where the 13th Amendment allows the forced labor of human beings convicted of crimes, these inmates have been pushed to the brink and are now taking a stand against unsafe living conditions and unfair labor practices. Despite corporate-owned news willfully ignoring the ongoing protests, this represents an important moment which highlights the failures of the US government to protect and uphold human rights in both public and privately-operated prisons alike.
These injustices have recently led the Justice Department to announce the phase-out of federal contracts with for-profit prison companies, such as the Corrections Corporations of America (CCA), due to major safety concerns for both inmates and staff. This is major progress for justice at the federal level and a blow to corporate profits at CCA and other private prison groups. However, the fight to end corporate power is far from over given the industry's massive spending on lobbying elected officials especially in states where their foothold is stronger than ever.
The top three private prison companies: CCA, the GEO Group, and Management and Training Corp (MTC) spend millions of dollars influencing politicians to support policies which increase incarceration rates and their profits. Since 2000, they have spent a combined $32 million lobbying Congress. Several members of Congress even own shares of CCA stock.
The industry also has a history of giving money to the two major presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton received over $100,000 from private prison groups during her 2016 presidential campaign while the main super PAC supporting Donald Trump received $50,000 from the GEO Group in August alone. With so much money flowing between for-profit prisons, Congress, and the presidential campaigns, it's clear this corporate scheme has negatively affected our criminal justice system along with our democracy.
The United States leads the world in incarceration, housing over 2.3 million people in its prison system; with roughly 5 percent of the world's population, the US holds nearly 25 percent of its prisoners. Incarceration rates in the US also take on a stark racial dimension: despite being the largest racial group (64%) in the US population, white people are significantly under-represented among its prison population compared with their Latinx (16%), Black (13%), and Native (1%) peers. Black people in particular are over-represented in prisons, making up 40% of the US prison population compared with 39% white, 16% Latinx, and 1% Native prisoners (also grossly over-represented).
The racial disparities of private prison operators like CCA and the GEO Group are even more disturbing. Housing roughly 128,000 people (based on 2010 estimates), their populations are overwhelmingly people of color according to a recent UC-Berkeley study. Not only are people of color grossly over-represented, they are also significantly younger, with private prison contracts deliberately excluding prisoners with high medical care costs which are typically white men over 50.
Expectedly, private prison companies will cut corners to increase profit at the cost of human well-being since money is their highest priority, but even government operated prisons are not immune to certain pitfalls. As highlighted by the recent protests by inmates, conditions have deteriorated to such a degree in Alabama prisons that the Department of Justice has decided to launch a statewide investigation to determine if physical safety standards are being met.
Just as mass incarceration persists, so have budgetary pressures on local and state governments. Revenue-generating policies such as monetary penalties for tickets, citations, and arrests have drastically increased, effectively trapping people in a cycle of poverty and degrading public confidence in law enforcement. While only 12% of people incarcerated were simultaneously fined in 1986, 37% were by 2004. In 1990, 26 states placed the financial burden for probation and parole supervision on offenders. By 2014, 44 states did. As if trying to find work with a criminal record isn't hard enough, these fines and fees, which come tagged with interest payments, are often controlled by debt collection corporations, also more concerned about profit than human well-being.
Some state and local government agendas are more straightforward and sinister in their pursuit for money. In some cases, like in Ferguson, Missouri, police explicitly use ticketing as a tool to raise revenue according to a 2015 Justice Department report, which revealed an array of unjust police tactics used against the community, mostly African American. Such tactics decimate their role to protect and serve, further eroding public trust, creating a cycle of debt-induced poverty leading to increasingly tense confrontations with police which sometimes escalates into deadly scenarios.
The criminal justice system is not about the rule of law but the rule of money and corporate interests. Corrections Corporation of America and others have taken advantage of a warped campaign finance system to bankroll politicians supporting policies that view people as commodities rather than human beings. Corporate encouragement of mass incarceration and revenue generating policies are directly incompatible to reforming the criminal justice system where the focus isn't trapping people in poverty and increasing profits, but is instead restorative for both the victim and the perpetrator.
As communities of color brace themselves for the presidency of Donald Trump, and what appears to be a kinder, gentler "ethnic cleansing," it would serve all Americans well to join the growing democracy movement and the Campaign to Legalize Democracy.
Garrett Jennings is an intern with Move To Amend, working to pass a Constitutional amendment to end the doctrines of corporate constitutional rights and money as speech. Garrett is a former intern at the Tennessee Democratic Party and a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga where he studied public policy and economics.