[reading time: 12 minutes]
During the financial crisis, Stan and Charmaine lost their jobs and their home and witnessed gangs rapidly taking over their beloved city. In this moment of economic, security, and social collapse, the young couple noticed an advertisement for Positron, a social experiment which promises both a safe life in a nice single-family home and full-time employment. The catch? They have to switch places with convicted felons every other month.
That is the prelude of Margaret Atwood’s award-winning 2015 book The Heart Goes Last. Marketed as a novel about a dystopian near-future, the initial premise of exploitations in (for-profit) jails might sing an all too familiar tune for America’s convicts.
Some 2.3 million Americans are today locked away behind bars, including almost 80,000 of them in solitary confinement. The biggest boom for the private prison industry occurred under the Clinton presidency. The Democrat’s decision to cut the federal workforce “lead to the Justice Department contracting of private prison corporations for incarcerated Americans and migrants.” Back then, five for-profit prisons were in operation throughout the United States. They held a combined population of around 2,000. In 2008 the numbers had already grown to 100 and 62,000 respectively. By 2016, the final year in office for the nation’s first black President, the population inside America’s private for-profit prisons had grown to nearly 130,000. (2016 is currently the last year for which reliable data is available).
Making money off America’s poor
These men and women are overwhelmingly poor. Income levels, not race, are the leading predictor of whether an American ends up in jail, according to a 2018 paper by People’s Policy Project. In 2014 more than 1 in 2 male prisoners and almost 3 in 4 female convicts had incomes below $22,500 before they were sentenced to serve time. Hence why black people, who would currently need another two centuries to amass the same wealth as white people, and to this day receive longer sentences than white people for committing the same crime, make up a disproportionate amount of the country’s convicts.
In an ugly twist, locked behind bars, they have turned the for-profit correctional facilities into one of the nation’s fastest growing industries, now worth a stunning five billion U.S. dollars. Operators, who get paid per day and per inmate at their facilities, lobby politicians, pushing “tough on crime,” anti-immigration and anti-drug legislations on federal and state level. Such policies ultimately led to the ever-rising demand for new correction facilities, which effectively expands their business and boosts payouts for investors. For example, the mere passage of so-called “3 strikes” laws – sentencing a person to life in prison after they’ve committed a felony for the third time – resulted in 20 new prisons.
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. (13th Amendment, Section 1)
In recent years the industry fell out of love with the Democratic Party. In a rebuke to the Obama administration’s plan to reduce the use of for-profit jails at the federal level, ninety-six percent of the donations made by CoreCivic, the industry leader who accumulated a net income of $178 million in its fiscal year 2017, went to Republicans in 2016. The strategy worked. Shortly after taking office, Jeff Sessions, Trump’s first Attorney General, reversed the Obama plan in a one-paragraph memo.
The industry breathed a collective sigh of relief. And since the issue about mass incarceration shares a link with America’s economic power, they probably weren’t the only ones. IBM, Boeing, Microsoft, Dell, Intel, Macy’s, and Victoria’s Secret, to name just a few, have all used a loophole in the 13th Amendment, which allows slavery “as a punishment for crime.” It is today perhaps better known as “convict leasing.” The financial benefits are obvious – convicts in for-profit jails can earn as little as 17 cents per hour. So, too, are potential marketing payoffs for “Made in America” products. Two crucial components of the for-profit prison industry complex provide even greater incentives for long-term investment. The wrong public perception that private prisons are cheaper for taxpayers, disproven by research and audits, has led judges to hand out longer sentences; and for-profit jails have given inmates more conduct violations than taxpayer-owned prisons. The latter has increased the time served per-person by an additional three months. Companies can, therefore, rest assured that a “skilled” workforce will be at their disposal for long-term projects. Most crucially, however, few states have expanded the Freedom of Information Act or other open records laws to correctional facilities, allowing its operators, as well as multinational corporations, to hide any wrongdoings.
Lack of accountability and transparency
Just this week groups of Democratic presidential candidates, among them Senators Warren of Massachusetts, Harris of California and Gillibrand of New York, realised what this could mean. The members of Congress tried to visit the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children while in Florida for their first televised debate of the campaign. They were all denied entry by Comprehensive Health Services Inc., which runs the facility in Homestead, Florida. CHSi is a subsidiary of the for-profit prison operator Caliburn International.
It is, at best, difficult to find stories about life inside such facilities. Some of the ones, which do get out, are shocking.
Detainees at the Steward detention center, run by CoreCivic, in Georgia regularly complain about receiving insufficient amounts of (free) food. The practice forces them to pay up to $80 a week into the commissary to buy more food. In 2017 Shoaib Ahmed, a 24-year-old Bangladeshi detainee at the Stewart detention center in Georgia, called on fellow workers to go on strike. His last paycheque of a mere $20 had still not arrived. As a consequence, the staff threw him into solitary confinement, which had a major negative impact on the state of his mental health.
Geo Group, another for-profit prison company, allegedly forced its detainees at a facility in Aurora, Colorado, to either work for a maximum of just $1 a day or face solitary confinement. A lawsuit filed in 2014 won class action status in March 2017. As a response, 18 Republican Congressmen, almost all of them having received donations from the for-profit prison industry, wrote then-Attorney General Sessions a letter, urging him to support the industry. The practice of underpayment, they argued, boosts the morale of inmates.
Far from boosting any moral, the ACLU’s series “Prison Profiteers” showed serious neglect, when it comes to basic health care. Eleanor Grant’s partner, Thomas, for example, got jailed in Tucson, Arizona, in 1994. At the time of the interview, he had an enlarged prostate and was in urgent need for a biopsy. He was in such pain that he couldn’t even sit down anymore. According to Thomas, he didn’t receive his medication the day ACLU interviewed Ms Grant. The staff, he claimed, simply ignored him. It fits the practice described by a nurse at Corizon Health Inc., the leading for-profit healthcare contractor in America’s prisons. She told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “We save money because we skip the ambulance and bring them right to the morgue.” It shouldn’t, therefore, have come as a surprise to anyone, when prisoners in 17 states went on strike last summer to protest against their low wages, the poor working conditions, and the inability to highlight any potential abuses towards them.
A left-leaning country heading into the 2020 election
The end of 2018, though, might have made America’s inmates feel a bit more optimistic about their future behind bars. Republicans and Democrats finally broke the impasse on criminal justice reform. Voters in Florida approved by an overwhelming margin of 29 percent an amendment to the state constitution to restore voting rights to 1.5 million ex-felons. Plus, support for left-wing policies, polls suggest, has reached a 60-year high. As the nation now enters its quadrennial debate over its future, the question how far the country is really willing to go on issues related to criminal justice might decide who walks (back?) into the Oval Office on January 20th, 2021, at 12:01 pm.
Bernie Sanders, the 2016 runner-up in the Democratic nomination fight, once again tries to push the envelope. Asked if prisoners like the Boston Marathon bomber should have the right to vote, the self-described Democratic Socialist told a CNN town hall audience back in April, “The right to vote is inherent to our democracy. Yes, even for terrible people.” As the Senator from Vermont, one of only 2 states to allow prisoners the right to vote (Maine being the other), this seemed like a normal policy proposal. It nevertheless took the rest of the Democratic field by complete surprise and was, perhaps as expected, heavily criticised in conservative media. All of a sudden, proposals such as the clemency plan for over 17,000 inmates by Cory Booker, an African-American US Senator from New Jersey, looked rather conservative in comparison. Kamala Harris, the only female black member of the U.S. Senate, was only prepared to “have that conversation.” Her time as California’s state Attorney General might, however, suggest the Senator – who had a breakout moment in this week’s Democratic debate – feels very differently on this subject matter than Sanders. Even Senator Warren of Massachusetts, who hopes to attract the same group of voters as Sanders, refused to go there.
For the first time since he energised the Democratic grassroots movement in 2016, and subsequently took the party firmly to the left on issues ranging from college affordability to health care, others don’t seem to “feel the Bern.” No one made that more obvious than “Mayor Pete.” Buttigieg, who is currently dealing with racial tensions in his city of South Bend, Indiana, after a white police officer shot a black man, clearly disagrees with Sanders. The Millennial from America’s heartland neither acknowledged any institutional racism in the justice system nor the troubling nature of for-profit prisons and detention centres, when he came out as a clear “No” on this issue. The CNN audience applauded him. The camera swung to a black woman, visibly shocked by both the answer and the reaction to it.
The current frontrunner, Joe Biden, had not yet entered the race by the time the town hall event with Democratic candidates took place. So far, he has escaped this question. His past record, trying to bring the Democratic party and law enforcement closer together, might offer us a hint at his thinking. But after a nightmare performance at this week’s debate, where the former Vice President had serious difficulties to answer pointed criticism from Senator Harris about his record on issues of race, Biden needs to come prepared to next month’s debate. (The July debates will, funnily enough, take place on CNN.) Will he try to turn the page on defending his fight against desegregationist busing by pledging to end, what Michelle Alexander coined, “the new Jim Crow”? No one can know for sure. If he were to follow Sanders’s lead, as he did from the sidelines on so many occasions in 2016, the likelihood of a more humane way of life inside America’s prisons and detention centres would rise quite significantly. In addition, it might even add greater credibility to his campaign catchphrase – “this election is a fight for the soul of our country.”