Donald Trump’s election in November of 2016 evoked a range of emotions within Americans. While some were overjoyed and others grimly pondered the future of our country, the upper management of several of the country’s biggest private prison companies rejoiced.
The private prison industry is a multi-billion dollar industry that makes money through government contracts. It runs prisons and immigration detention facilities at both the state and federal levels. The facilities are marketed as a solution to prison overcrowding and a way to reduce costs, which are inarguably problems that need to be addressed. The United States boasts the largest prison population in the world, but it costs billions to build and maintain those facilities.
The private prison system has been under fire for poor treatment of prisoners and cost-cutting measures that result in dangerous and inhumane conditions. Beyond that, the private prison system has been likened to modern day slavery because of the way it funnels African-Americans into forced labor for little to no pay. Because the contracts that private prisons sign with the government often guarantee a certain level of occupancy, law enforcement officials find themselves under pressure to arrest more people, and our prison population is disproportionately made up of minorities, specifically African-Americans. Prisoners can then be forced to work, and because minimum wage laws don’t apply to them, they can be paid very little or even nothing for their efforts. Refusing to work can mean solitary confinement.
In 2016, then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates issued a directive to phase out the use of private prisons, citing ethical concerns about the treatment of prisoners in those facilities compared to government ones. The day after, private prison companies began donating to political campaigns. The GEO Group and CoreCivic, the two largest publicly traded prison companies, both contributed $250,000 to President Trump’s inauguration ceremonies. Just 12 days into his tenure as Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent out his own directive reversing that of Yates and encouraging the continued use of private prisons.
There is next to no public support for private prisons, and they have been found to not significantly reduce costs. The best justification for their existence is that they are a necessary evil to deal with issues of cost and overpopulation, but other options do exist. Considering that 46.1 percent of our federal prisoners are serving sentences for drug offenses according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, as well as growing popular support and successful implementation in several states and D.C., legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana presents an interesting alternative. Legalization could even change those nonviolent offenders from an expense as prisoners to a revenue source through taxation.
Mandatory minimum sentences and other policies that keep people in jail for more time also ensure that our prison population stays high.
For an advanced democratic country, the fact that the United States has the highest prison population in the world is an embarrassment, and taking steps to reduce that population is a much more viable alternative to our problems than privatization.