Incarceration: a New American Pastime

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In 1984, a newly formed company Corrections Corporation of America acquired the United States’ very first corrections facility contract for the state of Tennessee. This was the first time in American history that a private, for-profit corporation would control and care for the nation’s incarcerated.

Over the next 28 years, the power and reach of the privatized prison system consumed over half of the country’s prison institutions and, in turn, led to a six-fold increase in prisons and inmate capacity in the U.S. The number of correctional facilities and unwarranted incarcerations in America will continue to increase so long as the corporate takeover of U.S. prisons is driven by a corporate philosophy that revolves around perpetual profits and growth.

When we consider the growth of American industry over the past ten years, we are faced with the fact it has continued to struggle to keep afloat through multiple wars and recession. Conversely, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), like many of the independent prison operators, has experienced considerable growth and profits, with most of that growth occurring over the past decade. This phenomenon is not limited to CCA either—its rival, the GEO Group, has experienced similar growth. In 2003, CCA traded near $6.00/share and it now currently sells near $34.00/share (NASDAQ).

Both companies, CCA and GEO Group reported their total revenue for 2011 at around $1.7 billion, further proving that the private corrections industry is thriving. With their success, these companies have begun to own and operate their own facilities as well. CCA now owns and operates 66 facilities; the GEO Group now has 65 in their possession.  In the recession, both companies have thrived not only on an increased demand for prison capacity, but on a corporate philosophy that places profits above anything else.

The contemporary philosophy in corporate America maintains that perpetual profits and aggressive growth is the only path to success. The current model perpetuates a survival–of-the-fittest, take-no-prisoners attitude, where the success of the corporation is paramount. With the current framework, the goal of benefiting society as a whole becomes secondary to that of the success of the corporation. “Unfortunately, we live in a world of capitalists who thrive on the great Myth of Perpetual Growth, endless growth, ad-infinitum, forever, till the end of time”.

We see this business philosophy every day at department stores as they shill the week’s hot new product. We see it every year at Black Friday when companies try to outdo the previous year’s successes. As a nation run by corporate capitalism, we assume perpetual growth is guaranteed, even though we live in a world of limited resources and consumers. The problem of this philosophy not only exists in department stores, but it also exists in the far reaches of our government as well, and can be seen in the public statements of companies like CCA that tout their constant construction of new facilities and new beds for more inmates. This corporate philosophy of perpetual growth has become a cancer, and exists in all areas public and private, affecting all facets of our society.

At the time the first contract was awarded to CCA, in 1984, there were 903 state-run correctional facilities in the United States, incarcerating a total of 395,309 inmates. In 2005 the number of prisons had doubled to 1,821 facilities and the number of inmates had grown to over 1.4 million. From 2005 until 2010 the number of inmates climbed to a staggering 2,266,832 nearly doubling the number of inmates in a five year period (U.S. Census). In addition to the unprecedented increase in prisons and inmates we have also seen an increase in unwarranted arrests and incarcerations in the United States over the past few years.

The most notable of cases has been in New York, which Mayor Bloomberg has repeatedly touted as the “safest big city in America.” He has been able to claim this due to the increase of arrests throughout the city over the past decade and with the implementation of the highly questionable “stop and frisk” policy. The Village Voice recently helped in bringing to light the truth about how New York City police departments had established an arrest quota for their officers. The officers were given the choice to either abide by these guidelines or risk losing their jobs due to non-compliance. Since this story broke, a plethora of similar  accounts have come to light, such as the recent development of the “Cash for Kids” scandal, where elected judge of Pennsylvania, Mark Ciavarella, received millions of dollars in kickbacks for child convictions to fill the beds of a private juvenile detention center owned by Mid Atlantic Youth Services Corp. Cases such as these are only a symptom of a much greater sickness within our corrections system. By continuing to allow the privatization of prisons in America, we contribute to the incremental degradation of our human rights, and further establish a totalitarian justice system which no longer upholds law, but instead does the bidding of its corporate controllers.

Some have argued though, that there is no direct relationship between the privatization of the prison system and the increased incarcerations in America. There is, of course, the possibility that this growth is due to an increase in population and other social factors that led to increased criminal activity. If that were the case, we can conclude companies like CCA and the GEO Group are merely providing the United States with a much needed service. If this logic were true though, other countries struggling with similar population growth, poverty, and social tensions would see a similar rise in their prison populations. As it stands, the U.S. leads the pack, as we incarcerate more citizens than any other country in the world. China, with the world’s highest population and most impoverished people, trails behind us.

The undeniable correlation between the time frame of the sudden increases in size of the U.S. prison system and its inmates, in addition to the creation of the private corrections companies and their government contracts, further establishes that they must be inextricably linked. If we are to take back control of our disproportionate corrections operations, we must first decouple profits from incarceration. Once corporations are not rewarded for imprisoning citizens, then we will have the social space to examine and correct the roots of criminal behavior, instead of just profiting from them.

 Written by Justin Blush for Media Roots

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