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Are Private Prisons Really the Problem?

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September 6, 2015




I’ve been busy working on several pieces, and a couple are related to the prison industrial complex, if in somewhat different ways.  In the process, I’ve had the pleasure of returning to the work of scholars and activists whose work I’ve been following over the last few years, and of working through several knotty questions and issues that keep surfacing in the realm of prison abolition/anti-prison organising (the two are not always the same).  


Key among them is the presence of private prisons in the prison industrial complex.  The public discourse on prisons and carcerality in general has shifted tremendously in the last few years — I don’t think we’re necessarily anywhere near realising a vision of a world without prisons, but their presence is at least being questioned (even if in troubling terms of exceptionalism and innocence). The matter of private prisons appears to have enraptured people the most.


Everyone, from Bernie Sanders to the American Civil Liberties Union to student groups like Columbia University’s  Students Against Mass Incarceration has taken a position on private prisons. This June, after continuing pressure from SAMI, “Columbia University’s Board of Trustees voted to divest its $9.2 billion endowment from private prisons, and create a negative screen that will prevent further investments down the line,” according to Waging Nonviolence.


Sanders, after being protested by Black Lives Matters activists, has promised to introduce legislation to abolish private prisons.




Are private prisons really the biggest problem with the prison industrial complex?


A few years ago, I reported on a talk by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex: The World We Want Is the World We Need.”  What struck me, and what I’ve been mulling for a while now, was her point that private prisons are not the majority of the PIC, but a small fraction of it.  Gilmore has long roots in the prison abolition movement, is a founding member of Critical Resistance, a professor at CUNY and the author of Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California.  Her point about private prisons is one she’s been making for a while, but most recently in this piece, “The Worrying State of the Anti-Prison Movement.”


In it she raises her four “areas of particular concern about the state of the anti-prison movement” and you should read the entire, and short, piece for all of them but here’s what strikes me:

The long-standing campaign against private prisons is based on the fictitious claim that revenues raked in from outsourced contracts explain the origin and growth of mass incarceration. In any encounter about mass incarceration, live or on the Internet, print or video, sooner rather than later somebody will insist that to end racism in criminal justice the first step is to challenge the use of private prisons.


Let us look at the numbers. Private prisons hold about 8 percent of the prison population and a barely measurable number (5 percent) of those in jails. Overall, about 5 percent of the people locked up are doing time in private prisons. What kind of future will prison divestment campaigns produce if they pay no attention to the money that flows through and is extracted from the public prisons and jails, where 95 percent of inmates are held? Jurisdiction by jurisdiction, we can see that contracts come and go, without a corresponding change in the number or the demographic identity of people in custody. In addition, many contracts are not even held by private firms, but by rather municipalities to whom custody has been delegated by state corrections departments.


She’s right, of course, and these statistics can be found in this document released by the Department of Justice.


The point here, for me, isn’t simply to point out that the emphasis on private prisons is wrong; their presence (though dwindling) does in fact enable, for instance, lengthy sentencing and the creation of a corporate system which has no incentive to do anything but treat prisoners unfairly and often with great cruelty in order to extract maximum profits.


But even private prisons were in the majority, and they’re not,  are we really assuming that a state-run system is somehow better, less cruel, more humane because the state oversees it? As Gilmore put it in her talk, "rather than more humane punishment, the point is how do we become more humane."


A lot of critics echo Bernie Sanders who insists that  “It is morally repugnant and a national tragedy that we have privatized prisons all over America.”


Of course, I have no doubt prison activists like the ones at Columbia, in Black Lives Matters and even Sanders get that prisons are the problem.  But in all the very public fuss about prison and privatisation, are we in danger of forgetting that it’s not the profits but the prisons that should be abolished?


Anyway, for more on all this, you should check Gilmore in this video, and this one.  And for a queer perspective, here are my friends Eric Stanley and Chris Vargas, with their film Criminal Queers.


Update: Thanks to Mariame Kaba for this set of Storified tweets, which explains the role of private prisons more clearly, and for her recent comment to me: "Taking on private prisons is most comfortable for liberals because they like to talk so much about corporatization rather than capitalism."


Image source.

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