2.2 million, about 1 in 142 people, currently spend their days behind bars in the United States. That means 25% of prisoners worldwide come from a country that's home to only 5% of the global population. Changes in US crime rates have mirrored Canada’s for the last 40 years, yet while Canada’s incarceration rate has remained relatively stable, the US rate has grown threefold since the 1980s. Why has prison become such a popular sentence in America’s penal system?
If incarceration rates were measured strictly by number of court verdicts, the US would actually rank lower than several European countries today. But thanks in great part to various determinate sentencing laws—i.e. mandatory minimums and “three strikes” which prohibit real human adjudication in criminal convictions—the US ultimately takes the cake for the most standardized, impersonal and exacting prison system in the world. Following three strikes laws, the rate of life sentences in the US increased by a staggering 83% between 1992 and 2003, even though the rate of violent crime had actually fallen.
So given the availability of these figures, why doesn't the system stand corrected? How do policy makers reconcile having an incarceration rate 5 times that of the UK when crime rates are less than double? Or 24 times the rate of incarceration in India with only 11 times the crime? These 5 unfortunate realities of the US prison complex might help form some answers...
5 Big Profits
The two biggest private penitentiary companies in America - Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group Inc. - made $3.3 billion in the 2012 fiscal year. With 67 and 95 prisons respectively, they control 75% of the US private prison industry. Since the early 90s the CCA’s revenue alone has grown by more than 500%.
What makes growing privatization such a shocking feature of the US prison system? Many of us would probably condemn any privatization in what is generally thought to be the public sphere; prison is, after all, one of those necessary evils required by the government to manage the country, not a profit-making enterprise. But for anyone who thinks prison privatization is a positive, we might direct you to a study or two; like the 2013 Bloomberg report that found assault rates in private prisons tend to be three times higher than public ones. Or we might point out the stark fact that the majority of inmates in Louisiana—the prison capital of the world—belong to private penitentiaries.
But what’s more unsettling than the simple fact of prison privatization is the influence it has on policy...
4 Lock-up Quotas
Straight out of a dystopian novel, private prisons companies strike deals with state governors to guarantee a minimum lock-up rate at their facilities. It works like this: Prison company execs meet with state governors and offer to buy publicly-run prisons. Privatization is attractive for the state, because it means cost-cutting, but in return the companies work in all kinds of clauses which guarantee them big profits. Such was the case in 2012, when CCA incorporated a 90% occupancy rate guarantee into their contracts with 48 US governors. This means that even if crime falls, the state would have an obligation to fill up their prisons—to the brim, in many cases. Welcome to the US industrial prison complex.
Virginia state has one prison contract with a 95% occupancy guarantee; Oklahoma has three prison contracts at 98%; Arizona has three with 100%. All private prison companies try to work these clauses into their deals with the state to varying degrees, and they back them up by lobbying and even helping legislatures pen laws like “three strikes” and “truth-in-sentencing” (abolishing parole) which keep their facilities stocked for as long as possible.
And guess who pays when the state fails to hold up their end of the bargain?
3 Taxpayer’s Dollars
Colorado’s crime rate fell by a third over the last decade, so in recent years some state-run facilities shed a few pounds. But because of contractual obligations with private prisons, last year the state sent 3,330 new convicts to CCA’s prisons and left their own public beds empty. Meanwhile, taxpayers keep the government’s underused prison facilities up and running. The Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition estimates the state wasted over $2 million in tax dollars by giving private prisons precedent that year.
But private companies aren't the only cash sinks in the system. Data shows New York City spent $168,000 per prisoner in 2012, $60,000 per prisoner coming from tax revenues. That’s nearly four times the average US salary. All expenses totaled, the federal government spends $55 billion every year to house the country’s inmates—that's nearly as much as the country's spending on education.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising when you have mandatory punishments giving out record life sentences, feeding larger and larger elderly inmate populations with higher and higher healthcare costs. Just how bad is that last point? According to a 2012 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, the US elderly prison population grew by an absurd 1300% since the 1980s. That brings us to our next feature...
California’s 33 prisons had a designated capacity of 100,000 prisoners in 2008, yet they housed nearly double that at 170,000. Prison congestion is a recurring problem across the country prone to improvisational solutions, like at California State Prison (pictured above) where rows upon rows of bunk beds clutter a former gymnasium and share the floor with leisure space. An increasing number of prisons have resorted to converting facility space like this into military-style dormitories, posing unique security hazards for prison personnel. Already understaffed, the guards forfeit a proper view of the ground.
In 2009, a court citing cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment ordered the state of California to release 27% of its incarcerated population. Overcrowding was proving to foster more violence and unmanageable strain on prison health systems. Progress has since been made within California, but nationwide the problem remains. With half of the country’s inmates currently serving in federal prisons for non-violent drug crimes, and many of them sharing close quarters with violent convicts, mandatory minimums are an obvious culprit.
But there’s still another stakeholder in the system:
1 Dirt Cheap Labour
These aren't chain gangs we're talking about. This is the 21st century: This is Starbucks, Costco. This is Victoria’s Secret.
Penal labour is inscribed in the US constitution, but long gone are the heydays of ditch-diggers baking in the Florida sun (well, sort of). Since the 80s, both private and public prisons have been contracting convict labour to literally the biggest companies in the world: If you bought Starbucks holiday coffee in 2001, there’s a fair chance it was packaged by someone doing time in Washington. If you bought a new Microsoft PC in the late 90s, you might’ve torn through some inmate’s shrink-wrap job. If you wore Victoria’s Secret lingerie in the 90s, 35 female South Carolina prisoners could be to thank for their needlework.
From Boeing to Wal-Mart to Mcdonald’s, prison labour is a highly attractive cost-cutting option for big corporations in America. The reason why is obvious: Companies get away with paying fractions of minimum wage for what could be factory-like production, and it all slips into the silence of 'punishment'. According to the ILO, the country’s prison wages were as low as 23 cents an hour in the last decade. Sometimes companies strike deals with the prisons to pay out no wages at all, instead letting inmates work time off their sentences.
Taken alone, an actual low-or-no wage job might not be the worst gig for, say, a “career criminal”. But throw cost-cutting and lack of oversight into the mix, and suddenly you might be tempted to call it something else. In 2012, a Walmart supplier came under fire for providing insufficient provisions (little water, no sunscreen) to convicts for their backbreaking physical labour. In 2011, an old Californian airbase caught flack for making prisoners reassemble the dust-coated remains of post-combat tanks and military vehicles containing uranium and cadmium. In Florida, women prisoners recently condemned a UNICOR computer recycling operation for forcing them into contact with lead, mercury and arsenic dust without protective gear. The list goes on.
Most of us would agree: Putting convicts to work is by no means a bad thing, but giving companies the ability to cut corners and subvert all kinds of regulatory structures behind the rickety oversight of the prison labour system sure is. In one stand-out case from 1997, two prisoners in California spent over 45 days in solitary confinement for telling journalists they were forced to replace “Made in Honduras” with “Made in the U.S.A.” stickers on clothes for a Tshirt company. If employers hold all the cards and the prisons oversee it, how many cases of unfair labour treatment haven't come to light at all?
A prison sentence is a terrible mark on anyone's life. At base, it means you automatically forfeit some basic rights. Then there's those who think convicted felons deserve even less. That powerful corporations might be willing to exploit that sentiment; that's a disturbing prospect.