On Feb. 23, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a memo to the Bureau of Prisons reversing the policy of former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates that would have phased out federal use of private prisons. Though relatively new—dating back only to August of last year—the policy represented a positive change for an unjust criminal justice system. This reversal represents a step backwards and must be met with opposition.
As Texans, we are well positioned to influence this contemporary civil rights struggle; nearly 10,000 out of the the approximately 22,000 federal inmates in private prisons are incarcerated in Texas according to a Texas Tribune article cited in the Yates memo. As such, we can direct political energy towards local policies and legislation, where changes require (relatively) less social and monetary capital.
Under Yates, the Department of Justice opted to discontinue the use of private prisons because of poor management. Private prisons provide fewer services at a lower level of security for an unsubstantial reduction of cost. Specifically, a number of riots within Texas prisons preceded the decision.
Besides financial and security objections, there are also ideological and moral objections to private prisons as well. The primary function of any enterprise operating within a capitalist system is to generate revenue that exceeds its costs. The primary function of a criminal justice system is to reduce the rate of crime within a society. These goals are fundamentally incompatible for two reasons: first, because the profit motive incentivizes private prisons to incarcerate as many people as possible for the longest time, and second, because private prisons do nothing to address the social and economic factors that determine how, why and where crime happens.
The profit motive is an innate feature of private prisons that ensures they will act against the interests of their inmates and the society the justice system is supposed to serve. Rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners into mainstream society leads to a decline in profitability and goes against the long term interests of the industry. This is why private prisons such as the GEO Group and CoreCivic donated $250,000 each to the Trump campaign and (according to The Washington Post) the private prison lobby has spent nearly $25 million since 1989.
Prisons of any sort are ineffective because they are reactionary, treating symptoms rather than causes. Understood historically, crime is primarily the result of social and economic inequalities. This is not to say wealthy people do not also commit crime (they just don’t go to jail for it) but rather prison populations are disproportionately poor and that there are structural causes of that. The affordability of legal counsel and misuse of plea bargaining, for example, and the racialization of the prison-industrial complex (documented in Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow”) both contribute to mass incarceration.
This conflict of interest is further suggested by other policy changes; including a crackdown on states that have legalized marijuana consumption. This, combined with renewed use of private prisons, promises incredible gains for the industry which donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Trump campaign. Moreover, private prisons stand to benefit from recent ICE raids as undocumented immigrants are also often detained in private facilities.
It is therefore necessary that political movements demand criminal justice reform and strive to preserve advancements made in the recent past. As constituents, we should write our state and federal representatives demanding policies that serve the common good rather than private financial interests of a select few.