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Is Capitalism Increasing Prison Abuse?

-Soumya Gupta

Why privatisation of prisons does more harm than good:

“Our role is not to punish. The punishment is the prison sentence: They have been deprived of their freedom. The punishment is that they are with us." -Nils Öberg

The United States of America has the highest incarcerations rates, with around 2.3 million people incarcerated as of 2019. This is no surprise, owing to their harsh, and often biased policing policies that result in long and punitive prison sentences. Due to these fatuous policies, the state and federal, public owned prisons are overflowing, not only causing a disruption in the prisons themselves, but quite literally making it difficult to assign newly sentenced inmates to prisons. To counter this issue, inmates started being sentenced to private-owned prisons that stepped in to the “rescue” of public prisons.

However, these private prisons do more harm than good seeing as their main incentive remains claiming profits than the rehabilitation of prisoners. Private prisons show lax security, a callous indifference toward the rehabilitation of its prisoners, lobbying governments in order to gain economic favours, etc. In 2016 the Obama administration attempted to reduce the use of private prisons by ordering the Federal Bureau of Prisons to not renew their contract with private prisons as they reached the end of their bond. However, this effort put forth by the Obama administration was reversed with the swearing in of President Donald Trump as the President in 2017. The process of bringing private prisons back into the game accelerated not only because of the President’s personal opinions, but also because of hefty donations made by a couple of the leading private prison corporations, the CoreCivic and GEO Group to Trump’s inaugural festivals and other committees. Due to this wheedling, stocks of these companies that had fallen with the Obama Administration's direction to reduce the use of private prisons, rose sky high just months after Donald Trump came to power in 2017.

So, why does the American government insist on using private prisons? The answer lies not only in the increased number of incarcerations and lack of capacity of federal (and state) prisons, which saw a staggering increase in the prison population of 800% between 1980 and 2013, but also the consistent support of large industries in the continuation of private prisons for the sake of cheap labour.

Known as the Prison- Industrial Complex (PIC), these private companies exploit inmates by employing them to work for them for as little as 10 times lesser than the civilian labour rate. The PIC is derived from a Cold War Era concept, The Military- Industrial Complex which functions on a profit- based margin wherein these industries employ inmates to gain monetary benefits, including, but not limited to no off days, no sick leaves, no healthcare and insurance, no employee benefits, etc. As a result, large industries find themselves making profit by paying their (prison) employees as little as 50 cents an hour, and prisons make profit by conducting business with these industries. At the same time, these private prisons themselves find it in their favour to pay inmates as little as 17 cents as they are not tied down by government imposed policies.


There are various reasons for this. Apart from the harsh American policies that make incarceration not only an easy process but also a lengthy one, a lot of people spend time in jail only because of their lack of ability to pay their financial dues, that is; bail, court and jail fee, etc. to the system. And when it comes to poor people, this process only leads to what is known as recidivism, or relapse of “criminal behaviour”, thus resulting in their jail time lengthening over and over again. This reason is precisely why the prison system in America is said to serve capitalism- the rich find their escape and the poor suffer.

War on Drugs:

For years, it has been alleged that the war on drugs came into force for the sake of starting private prisons since it was in the aftermath of the inception of the War on Drugs that brought private, also known as “for-profit” prisons into the picture. Scholars believe that it was a supply-demand situation that fueled the war on drugs, wherein the contenders of private prisons proposed to convict drug offenders (to fill up their prisons). Alongside, with the American government’s “Zero Tolerance Policy”, local and state jails are being filled with non-violent drug offenders. However, it has been purported that the war on drugs has now become more or less a cover story for the endless and partisan arrest of people of colour.

Illegal Immigration:

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) which does not come under the purview of the Justice Department makes full use of these private prisons where the number of illegal immigrants being detained has risen considerably. In 2000, around 4,841 immigrants were detained in these prisons and this number rose to almost 26, 249 in 2016. And these numbers only continue to rise under the Trump administration.


The short answer is yes. The long answer may be a little more complicated. Though it is true that these prisons were established to help out the federal government with work they could not finance, it has been opined that private prisons have been given too much freedom in how they run the prisons, going as far as being compared to systematic slavery. Not only do these prisons run with a capitalistic fervour, but are very public about their lax attitude. The death rate of inmates is considerably higher in private prisons, partly due to the unbridled violence that breaks out among inmates and, between inmates and guards, alike, and partly due to the lack of trained personnel deployed at these prisons, which also cause frequent jailbreaks. At the same time, the basic rights of the inmates are continually disregarded in these prisons. But, at the end of the day, since these prisons contribute aggressively to the GDP of America, and play a more stringent role in keeping people in jail, they have become an integral and undying part of the American legal system.


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