Private Prisons: the New Slavery?

Historically, most prisons were private ventures until the mid 1800’s, when people began to criticise the brutal treatment of inmates, who were forced to do hard labour, lived in squalid conditions, and were often beaten by guards. By the turn of the 20th century, businessmen were complaining about the unfair advantage some companies had in using free prison labour, and prison reform and labour groups had pressured governments to take control of punishment facilities for humanitarian reasons.

For decades, it seemed obvious that the marriage of profit incentive and punishment led to disaster, yet there was a revival of the privatisation of public services in the Reagan-Thatcher years, when free- market fever stressed monetary efficiency and corporate deregulation as being the best way to run an economy. At that time, the same pro-corporate deregulatory policies that allowed manufacturers to more easily seek cheap labour abroad also allowed for them to buy up several previously public services, including prisons.

At first glance, there seems to be little profit potential in the punishment industry. Guards, food, construction and other expenses are high, while potential intake is nil. Defying union and human rights protests, however, companies began to force inmates to pay for their stay—and more--- through low paid labour, or ‘involuntary servitude’. This is ideal for manufacturers, who need not worry about potential strikes, paying unemployment insurance, vacation or sick leave. All workers are full time, never arrive late or hung-over, and best of all, if they complain about low pay rates or working conditions, they can be thrown into isolation cells.

Suddenly, punishment became profitable, and consequently, the United States has more inmates than any other nation in the world; far more than China, even though China is the most populous country on earth. Before the privatisation of the penal system, there were about 300,000 prisoners in the U.S.; now there are over 2 million, most of whom are non-violent offenders, and numbers are expected to grow.

Although some have argued that this sudden jump in figures is indicative of growing criminality, one sinister fact should be made very clear first: allowing for private contracting of punishment gives strong incentives to those who profit from imprisonment (mainly corporations, their shareholders and governments) to lock more people up. A study by the Progressive Labor Party states that corporate stockholders making profits from prison lobby governments for longer and mandatory sentences so that their workforce, and profits, can expand. The ‘three strikes’ laws in America, which allows for life sentences for those with three convictions, no matter how petty; ‘zero tolerance’ laws on drugs and mandatory sentences for drug possession have resulted from such lobbying. The same report likens the current private prison system with Nazi Germany’s slave labour and concentration camps, but parallels could also be drawn to Soviet gulags; Victorian workhouses, or the chain gangs and slave labour of the American South. This latter point is especially salient given that about 75% of new inmates to U.S. jails are African-American and Hispanic men.

Keeping Busy

In addition to the companies that directly manage America's prisons, many other firms are getting a piece of the private prison action. American Express has invested millions of dollars in private prison construction in Oklahoma and General Electric helped finance construction in Tennessee. Goldman Sachs & Co., Merrill Lynch, Smith Barney, among other Wall Street firms, have made huge sums by underwriting prison construction with the sale of tax exempt bonds, this now a booming industry worth over $2 bn.

Weapons manufacturers see both public and private prisons as a new outlet for "defence" technology, such as electronic bracelets and stun guns. Private transport companies have lucrative contracts to move prisoners within and across state lines; health care companies supply jails with doctors and nurses; food service firms provide prisoners with meals. High-tech firms are also moving into the field; the Que-Tel Corp. hopes for vigorous sales of its new system whereby prisoners are bar coded and guards carry scanners to monitor their movements. Phone companies such as AT&T chase after the enormously lucrative prison business.

In return for such investment, inmates have to work, and there is almost no manufacturing job they can’t do. Currently, much of what is supplied to the U.S. troops, such as dog collars, helmets, clothing, and tents, is made by prison labour, but it’s not just the Department of Defence that is benefiting: private contractors, including: IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, Intel, Northern Telecom, Nordstrom's, Revlon, Macy's, Pierre Cardin, and Target Stores, all have some of their manufacturing operations in prisons.

Not all states or provinces allow for private penal institutions, mainly thanks to strong correctional workers’ unions. Moreover, there is certainly nothing wrong with keeping prisoners busy, so long as human rights are protected in the process. In fact, in most penitentiaries, work is an option for well-behaved inmates, and the minimum wage is paid for work that mainly benefits the taxpayer, such as making licence plates for cars, for example. In privately run prisons, however, the incarcerated can receive as little as 17 cents per hour for a maximum of six hours of work a day, or about $20 per month, and the low wages serve to increase corporate profit margins. The highest-paying private prison is CCA in Tennessee, where prisoners receive 50 cents per hour for "highly skilled positions."

As a result of these wages, jobs are coming back to the U.S., but not for the law-abiding unemployed. In fact, several textile manufacturers based in Mexico are now heading north, and even Nike has been encouraged to stop production in the sweatshops of Indonesia to return to Oregon, where State Representative Kevin Mannix has offered the shoe giant ‘competitive prison labour’. In short, private prisons are taking jobs away from those who need work, but ironically, once prisoners are released, there are actually fewer jobs they are eligible for, either due to the stigma of having a prison record, or laws that prohibit the hiring of ex-convicts. The fewer jobs there are, the more likely it is that people will take drugs, turn to petty theft or work ‘under the table’, thus ensuring a steady flow of prisoners, and cheap labour. More insidious is the fact that those with prison records generally lose their right to vote. In other words, at this moment, at least 175,000 dark skinned American men, most of whom have been imprisoned for non-violent crimes, have lost their democratic voice and are working for pennies a day. The return to slavery has never seemed nearer.

Private Prisons, Private Profits

The State still pays for the construction of prisons through tax dollars, and spends a great deal of public resources monitoring their compliance to state standards. Profits, however, are usually strictly private. Although governments promised citizens cost savings from private prison contracts, these have not, in fact, materialised, and it could be argued that due to higher recidivism rates for ex-inmates from private institutions, the costs to society have in some ways been higher than expected.

Recidivism is thought to be lower in the public prisons because inmates there are often permitted to learn a trade, finish high school or take other courses; they are also offered drug rehabilitation services and psychological counselling. All of these cost money to the taxpayer, but contribute to prisoner reform, better equipping inmates for life on the outside once released, and reducing the chances that they will commit further crimes in future. This is an investment that most citizens would likely be prepared to make in the interest of the safety of their own communities, yet prison privatisation is growing insidiously around the world.

Private companies also claim that they offer the taxpayers savings because their prisons operate far more cheaply than do the states’. Because they are answerable to shareholders rather than tax payers, prison corporations are constantly ruthless when seeking ways to cut costs. In fact, skimping on food, health care, building repairs, guard’s training and salaries has caused several riots in prisons around North America. Almost all guards in state prisons are well trained and on union based salaries, while private prison guards receive much less money and training, ill-equipping them to deal with violent prisoners, and often tempting them to traffic drugs in prison for extra cash. PFI (Private Funding Initiative) prisons in Canada and Scotland have reported higher assault rates by guards on prisoners, higher guard turnover rates, and higher escape rates as a result of poor salaries and training for guards.

What now?

The past and more recent evidence against private prisons is clear. In 2006, the government of Ontario, Canada ended its Tory-driven experiment with for-profit prisons and admitted it had been a failure with respect to security, recidivism and cost savings; consequently, other Canadian provinces never followed Ontario’s example. Now, however, Conservative Prime Minister Steven Harper is holding secret meetings to determine whether private prisons should return to the country, and Mexico and the UK are also considering the further establishment of such institutions despite a lack of hard evidence that these can save money or otherwise benefit society.

What should be of note here is not so much the increase of private prisons per se, but the predominant social attitudes that facilitate their existence. A general acceptance crime is on the rise (whereas many statistics prove otherwise) and that the free market is always more efficient than the state, as well as a failure to get to the roots of the causes of crime and the false notion that stricter prison sentences reduce crime are all intrinsic to the collective belief system that allows for private prisons to thrive. The focus of most media on recent problems with youth crime, for example, has not been to question why youth are turning to crime, but how we can best and most harshly punish them.

Private prisons are allowing the wealthy few to benefit from the social problems of the many, while the majority of citizens are left to deal with the ‘externalities’ of increasing spirals of poverty, a growing sense of injustice and festering social ills. If, as Dostoevsky said, societies could be judged by the state of their prisons, then we are in for a harsh judgement indeed.

Chery Morris (a lecturer at SOAS, the University of London )







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