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Cruel and Unusual Punishment in the U.S.: The Private Prison Industry

Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) would be ending its use of private/for-profit facilities. The verdict followed the release of a report uncovering inordinate flaws within these contract prisons. This decision may sound like cause for celebration, but here’s the catch: Privately owned state prisons and immigrant detention centers will remain up and running, unaffected. The only private prisons that are shut down by the ruling are the few for which BOP is responsible.

Private prisons were initially devised in response to a surge in federal inmate population, but their use has since been exhausted. In the memo announcing the DOJ’s decision, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates writes that “private prisons served an important role during a difficult period, but time has shown that they compare poorly to our own bureau facilities.” Not to mention that while the alleged cost benefits have been debunked, private prison companies like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America continue to rake in big bucks. Just like any corporation, their primary aim is to increase revenue; in this case, however, this occurs at the expense of human beings — the majority of which are people of color. For the private prison industry, inmate life is considered secondary to monetary gain.

A lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF) has illustrated some of the gruesome scenes from beyond the prison gates. ACLU described the prisoners as being forced to live in “barbaric and horrific conditions” in which “their basic human rights [were] violated daily.” The Guardian highlights some of the particularly disturbing circumstances observed in EMCF: extensive cases of rape; unwarranted periods of solitary confinement in which prisoners were neglected and would set fires in order to catch guards’ attention; rat infestations so extreme that rats would crawl over inmates’ bodies, while guards would capture the rats, put them on leashes, and sell them to the mentally ill as pets; cell doors left unlocked, allowing other prisoners to enter and commit vicious acts of assault; severe distress and self-harm amongst untreated and neglected mentally ill inmates; so on and so forth. While EMCF is just one egregious example of corruption in the system, it demonstrates that these facilities are capable of getting away with much more than they should — and they certainly exercise this capability.

In general, private prisons see even higher rates of violence than do public prisons: inmate-on-guard violence occurs 49% more frequently in private than in public facilities, and inmate-on-inmate violence occurs 65% more frequently. They also experience more security complications, with higher rates of issues like escape, homicide, assault, and drug abuse. In the Public Interest has stated that “private prison companies have employed unqualified guards, resorted to excessive violence and cruelty to control inmates, and provided substandard medical care, resulting in unnecessary deaths. Prison privatization has led to numerous lawsuits and litigation, fines, and increased need for federal oversight, at great cost to taxpayers, communities, inmates and their families.” The only party that benefits is the corporation in charge.

There is no way around it: The private prison industry exists to capitalize off of the incarceration of human beings, especially those of color. While Corrections Corporation of America CEO Damon Hininger can claim that “[r]eentry programs and reducing recidivism are 100 percent aligned with [their] business model”, further investigation into the full speech from which this quote is extracted imply a long-term corporate strategy that, according to ACLU, looks like the “Wal-Martification” of reentry.

Actions speak louder than words, and these corporations continuously demonstrate that they value profit over people. Four major purposes of prison are retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, and rehabilitation; the private prison industry immorally accomplishes the first two while completely rejecting the others. By definition itself, a company that profits off of incarceration and recidivism cannot hope to righteously achieve those functions.


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Ali is currently a junior in high school with an avid interest in social justice. She has a passion for words and aspires to one day travel the world as a writer. Contact:

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