The monumental growth in the scope of prisons has been met with wide-scale privatization. This essentially means that rather than the state running prisons themselves, the state sells the prison to a private company, like Corrections Corporation of America, and this private firm is paid to run the prison instead. The privatization of the prison system is carried out under the same excuses we hear about privatizing everything, whether they are schools, hospitals, or construction work - to save money and improve efficiency.
The Myth of Private Prisons
Although the rhetoric of “saving money” is repeated by Republican and Democratic politicians alike, there is little or no evidence to support the claim that privatization achieves this. After years of research into the effects of privatization, the Utah Criminal Justice Center of the University of Utah concluded that “Cost savings from privatizing prisons are not guaranteed and appear minimal.” And in 2010 the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy concluded in a study on private prisons saving money that "there is no empirical data to back it up one way or the other.” While it is true that many states have reported savings through privatization, these numbers are either indirectly manipulated by allowing private prisons to turn away prisoners with specific healthcare needs, or directly manipulated by legislators with a vested interest in making privatization appear cheaper.
In Florida alone there have been dozens of corruption scandals reported of legislators having direct investments in the companies contracted to run the private prisons or where the private prisons were putting the health or safety of their prisoners in danger to “cut costs.” The idea that privatization means some kind of meager financial benefit to taxpayers doesn’t hold water.
Not only does privatization not save the taxpayer any money but the process of privatization has wider ramifications for the entire community. There are areas of the country, especially in the south, where the prison is the major employer in the area. This is because of the elimination of jobs in the manufacturing and textile industry in the south. As a result, there are some areas where the prison industry has become a stabilizing factor for a sector of the U.S. working class.
Prisons under U.S. Capitalism
Although state run prisons are by no means a solution, they are usually unionized, providing guards with a living wage, benefits, and pensions. They often have to employ a minimum number of people in the community and have to keep their books public in regards to salaries of the administration and reports of abuse. With private prisons none of this is required. They have no obligation to the workforce or the community and are virtually unregulated. Furthermore, both private and state run prisons will use prisoners as a hired workforce and contract them out to do jobs like construction or putting out fires - jobs that use to be unionized and performed by workers in the community.
This type of “bonded servitude” harkens back to the early days of the prison system shortly after the end of the U.S. Civil War. The majority of prisoners at this time were black workers who had been arrested in violation of the Jim Crow laws of the day that subjugated black workers as a permanent second-class. This was against the backdrop of an incredibly radical period of black and white workers’ struggles in the south in the years immediately following the war.
Prisons continue to act as a way to hold back social movements and maintain social control. It is no coincidence that the sharp rise in prisoners in the 1970s occurred along with the rise of the black power movement and the anti-war movement.
The prison system in general serves a larger purpose for capitalism. Under a capitalist economic model labor, which is our ability to work, is a commodity, like coal or grain or iPods. As a commodity it plays by the same rules as any other commodity. It can be bought and sold, usually by the hour. In times of crisis and excess capacity, capitalism sometimes has to reduce the level of commodities to keep the market balanced and working in the capitalists’ interests. For some commodities, this could mean burning oil fields in Iraq or hoarding of gold and currency in China. For labor, this often means abject poverty and wide-scale incarceration.
Organize to Protect Prisoners’ Rights
The capitalist system and the two big-business parties benefit directly from keeping the prison system profitable and expansive, and neither are prepared to make a stand for the rights of those in bondage. The struggle of prisoners and their families against inhumane conditions is our struggle as well. We cannot build a free and equal society while millions of people are treated like animals and have their dignity stripped away from them. If we expect this to change, we have to build the grassroots movement for prisoner’s rights, rehabilitation, and re-entry into society and put forward a clear and consistent challenge to capitalism and the two parties of big business.