Bernie Sanders wants to close private prisons as a first step towards ending mass incarceration in America. It sounds like a good plan. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Instead, Sanders’ focus on private prisons is a distraction that fails to grapple with the real scope, and root, of the prison problem in America.
The Democratic presidential hopeful wants to close prisons in part because it is “morally repugnant” for corporations to profit from imprisoning people. But more than that, he argues that private prisons corrupt the legislative process.
“A big reason for [America’s high imprisonment rate] is because companies that profit from prisons have spent millions of dollars lobbying for laws that needlessly keep people behind bars for far too long,” Sanders’ campaign declared in an October email to supporters.
From Sanders’ rhetoric, you would think that private prisons are the main driver of incarceration. But this is not the case. In fact, John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham School of Law, told me that private prisons account for only about 8 percent of total prison population—7 percent in state prison and 19 percent in federal prison.
Private prison lobbying efforts are also “pretty minor,” according to Pfaff. Private prisons spend much less than the education lobby, for example, which is competing for many of the same dollars. They’re also often out-maneuvered and out-spent by public prison guard unions. Private prisons have donated about $130,000 to Clinton’s campaign, for example—a drop in the bucket compared to the tens of millions of dollars she’s raised.
Private prisons do create perverse incentives in some cases. In Arizona, for example, where private detention facilities house large numbers of undocumented immigrants, the private prison lobby was instrumental in drafting and passing that state’s notoriously vicious anti-immigration SB1070.
Rebecca U. Thorpe, a political science professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, pointed out by email that private prisons are paid per bed filled.
“As a result,” she said, “prisoners are refused reduced sentences for good behavior at much higher rates in private prisons than in government-run facilities.”
But focusing on private prisons alone can obscure the fact that public prisons have their own profit motives. In Louisiana, for instance, Pfaff says prisons are paid more per prisoner than the cost of housing each inmate. Sheriffs therefore use the money they get for housing prisoners as a profit center to fund the rest of their departments. “Not shockingly,” Pfaff told me, “the sheriffs oppose leniency, and Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the U.S. and thus in the world.”
Public prisons can have sweeping political effects even beyond their financial incentives. Prisons have become a major source of jobs in many rural areas. Based on her own research, Thorpe says, “State lawmakers representing these rural prison communities comprise a consistent and powerful voting bloc opposing criminal justice reform.”
Lawmakers derive direct benefits from prisons, too. Prisoners are counted as resident of the prisons where they are housed. They thus increase rural populations, even though in many cases the prisoners cannot vote. The result is a modern-day version of the Three-Fifths Compromise in which disenfranchised minorities inflate the political power of white communities. For rural legislators, emptying prisons could literally put them out of a job - along with their constituents.
These dramatic large-scale incentives are complemented by a host of smaller mechanisms whereby public prisons become the source of private profit or institutionalize private interests. Writer and activist Yasmin Nair points out that phone contracts in public prisons are generally handled by private vendors that charge exorbitant prices to inmates. “The prison-industrial complex has expanded to the extent that it has because it knows how to exploit and use all sorts of capitalist machinery,” Nair told me, “and that includes collusion between private and public resources.”
The depressing truth is that incarceration in the United States has become so massive, so pervasive, and so central to our cultural and political systems, that seeing it simply as “big business” is inadequate. In a speech at the University of Illinois, James Kilgore, author of the recently published Understanding Mass Incarceration said, “Mass incarceration is first and foremost a political project…to deal with poverty by punishment.”
Deindustrialization has led to unemployment and large surplus populations in urban areas. Rather than dealing with that through social programs, the United States chose to create the largest prison system in the world, is how this line of thinking goes.
That prison system creates huge economic opportunities and incentives. Someone gets the contract to build the prisons; guards must be employed and paid to staff them; vendors provide (low-quality) clothes, soaps and other goods to a literally captive population.
Those economic interests in turn create a broad group of politicians, workers, businesspeople, law enforcement personnel and more who have an interest in maintaining the status quo. Prosecutors, too, have enormous political incentives to convict as many people as possible for lengthy sentences to demonstrate that they are tough on crime.
Sanders—and Clinton as well— see private prisons as an easy target. Democrats like to bash big corporations, and politicians like easy answers to complicated questions. Private prisons are a perfect scapegoat. Beat back the evil corporate profiteers, and government will once again function smoothly, dispensing justice for all.
It’s a pleasant daydream, but it’s also a dangerous one. The U.S. carceral system is too big, too powerful and too institutionalized to be dislodged with single-fix bills or glib explanations. Until politicians and the public acknowledge the immensity of what we have done to our country with our prison system, there’s no hope of changing it. America isn’t held captive by a handful of chortling businessmen. America has turned itself into a police state. There’s no easy path to freedom.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.