Plenty to Lose

The Private Prison Industry Backed Trump—Now He’s Paying It Back

The war on drugs is back, along with one of its most toxic byproducts: the privatization of punishment.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

The Trump administration has taken yet another giant step backward when it rescinded the directive issued by the Justice Department last August ordering the Bureau of Prisons to “phase out” the use of private prisons.

In an ominous sounding memo, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, no friend to criminal justice reform, said private prisons would be necessary “to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”

We all know what that means. After several years of welcome reform—supported by both parties and a majority of the American public—the nation’s federal prison population began a steady decline.

Between 2009 and 2015, the most recent year for which the government has end-of-year statistics, the number of sentenced people in federal custody fell 5 percent, representing 7,981 people. At the same time, the nation’s crime rate remained at a 20-year low.

But that progress is about to be stopped, or reversed. The president’s law-and-order rhetoric and his promised “military action” against millions of undocumented immigrants portends a new day for the private prison industry. In fact, private prison stocks jumped in value as soon as the Sessions memo was made public—a gift to an industry that contributed generously to the Trump campaign.

The growth of the private prison industry is one of the most toxic byproducts of the so-called war on drugs. This privatization of punishment has led to predictable and grave human rights violations—predictable because the desire for higher profits inevitably leads to cutting corners when it comes to conditions of confinement. Numerous lawsuits have been filed against the Corrections Corporation of America (recently renamed CoreCivic), the GEO Group, and other companies charging unconstitutional prison conditions including lack of medical care and excessive use of force and solitary confinement.

Just as insidious, private prisons have an incentive to maximize the number of days served by each person by meting out excessive infractions and thereby preventing earlier release. A 2015 study in Mississippi, where 40 percent of prison beds are in private prisons, showed that people assigned to private prisons had an increase in their sentence of 4 to 7 percent, which equaled 60 to 90 days for the average person in prison. That extra time translates into an average of $3,000 more per person in custody at the expense of fairness and equal treatment.

This reversal is not going unnoticed or unaddressed by those working to end mass incarceration in America. As with other unpopular announcements from the new administration, it will spur public discussion and protest. The National Prison Divestment Campaign will redouble its efforts to add to the growing list of academic and religious institutions and municipalities that have already dumped millions of dollars’ worth of shares in the industry.

Banks like Wells Fargo, also a major funder of the Dakota Access Pipeline, are currently being targeted for bankrolling the private prison industry’s debt during a period of contraction following the Obama administration’s phase-out. In January, in response to demands made by the Afrikan Black Coalition, the University of California announced it was discontinuing $475 million worth of contracts and its $300 million line of credit with Wells Fargo.

During the campaign, candidate Trump asked black Americans what they had to lose. The answer appears to be another generation of their children to the privatization of punishment. As a young man, I was incarcerated for six years in New York State prisons. My take away from that experience was that our criminal justice system suffers from a severe case of hypocrisy and racism. Rather than rehabilitate, it grinds people down and leaves them with the life-long stigma of a criminal record.

Those of us in the movement of formerly incarcerated peoples will not rest until mass incarceration is a thing of the past. Ending private prisons and the monetization of misery remains a vital part of our struggle.