On September 3, 2020, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey announced that she would negotiate with two private prison firms to lease 3 mega prisons from them in her state. Each one is expected to hold over 3,000 inmates. They are to replace 11 older institutions, which will be either closed or repurposed. The ostensible reason is to “improve safety for our state’s correctional staff and inmate population,” as Gov. Ivey is quoted as saying in an AP News article.
I doubt it.
The truth is that the state probably just wants to enrich private industry. And that will keep mass incarceration alive and well deep into the 21st century.
Private prisons go far back into western history. In 1625, prison officials in the cities of Hamburg and Bremen — now in the Federal Republic of Germany — charged different daily rates for different classes of prisoners. The most profitable were called losamenten — people locked up for the crime of being a bad family member. A (usually rich) family could pay a fee called an oeconomus to provide room and board and keep the offending family member locked up until either he or she started to behave or the family stopped paying.
Private prisons in America had their roots in the reconstruction era, when states would arrest newly freed blacks on trumped up charges and then force them to work for private industry in a practice known as convict leasing. By all accounts it was a brutal system. In David Oshinsky’s book “Worse Than Slavery,” he describes the Mississippi plantations the prisoners were forced to work on in the late 1800s:
“the prisoners ate and slept on bare ground, without blankets or mattress, and often without clothes. They were punished for ‘slow hoeing’ (ten lashes), ‘sorry planting’ (five lashes), and ‘being light with cotton’ (five lashes). Some who attempted to escape were whipped ’till the blood ran down their legs’; others had a metal spur riveted to their feet. Convicts dropped from exhaustion, pneumonia, malaria, frostbite, consumption, sunstroke, dysentery, gunshot wounds, and ‘shackle poisoning’ (the constant rubbing of chains and leg irons against bare flesh).”
Though private industry controlled and exploited convict labor by using them on various private projects and plantations, the idea of making money by housing US prisoners in private jails and prisons didn’t get its start in America until about a century later.
In 1984, Corrections Corporation of America (now rebranded CoreCivic) won a contract to run their own detention center in Houston, Texas. They expanded over the decades, and now with other private prison companies like Geo Group, the percentage of state and federal inmates housed in private prisons has grown to around 8.5 percent of the total US prison population. This may not seem like much but the profit incentive for these companies is huge. In 2019, the revenues that CoreCivic and GEO Group, Inc. brought in amounted to 1.98 billion and 2.48 billion, respectively. It’s for this reason that the idea of ending mass incarceration without first ending the profit motives of prison industry will never lead to change.
The problem with the adjective “private” when attached to anything related to prisons and prisoners is that businesses will always want to expand their customer base. And that leads to only one conclusion when applied to prison industry: more prisoners. Is it any wonder that private prison construction coincided with Reagan’s War on Drugs and Clinton’s Tough on Crime era? Many prison contracts even require the state to provide a certain number of “customers” to the private prison, which in turn pressures the criminal justice system to provide those bodies.
Luckily, at least one state has seen the light and decided to put an end to this madness. California Assembly Bill 32 went into effect in January 2020. Because of this bill — unless Trump and GEO Group get their way (they filed a lawsuit) — all private prison contracts are slated to end by 2028 in the state of California.
So, in closing, if you want to end mass incarceration, go after the the money of prison industry by shutting down the profit streams and getting in the way of the cozy relationships between state and federal governments and private prison industries.. With the cost savings of not locking up millions of people, you might even get some money for schools and roads.
Hopefully not built by convict slave labor.
To contact me by mail:
Joshua Wood #1189105
Buckingham Correctional Center
PO Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936
Please check out Virginia DOC’s policies regarding mail on their website before sending a letter. They can be very particular.
You can also use the name and state number above to contact me through email via jpay.