On December 18, 2015, the eve of the Christmas holidays, the University of California announced that it was withdrawing roughly $30 million worth of its investments in private prison companies. U of C was not the first institution of higher learning to do so; Columbia University had divested itself of all of its shares in the private prison industry the previous June. In both cases, the Trustees’ decision to divest came after months of pressure from black student groups. By their action, Columbia and the University of California joined corporations like General Electric, Scopia Capital, and DSM, each of which has dumped millions of dollars’ worth of prison stock in the past few years in response to shareholder demands. The Prison Divestment Campaign, launched in 2011 by a coalition of human rights organizations, is on track to match the success of the massive South Africa divestment movement of the mid-1980s, and success cannot come too soon.
The growth of the private prison industry is one of the most toxic byproducts of the “War on Drugs.” The ratcheting up of drug law sentences by both the federal government and state legislatures throughout the l980s and 1990s led to a rapidly expanding prison population and the need for huge increases in corrections spending and prison building. Many states could not keep up with the demands of mass incarceration. Their need for more prison cells was met by for-profit prison companies, the largest of which are the Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the Florida-based GEO Group, both publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange. With the intensification of deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal government has turned to the private sector for space to detain tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants. Today, private prisons are a multi-billion dollar industry.
The reasons to divest from these companies are both moral and practical. On the moral side, the privatization of punishment, or what I call the monetization of misery, has led to predictable human rights violations – predictable because the desire for higher profits inevitably leads to cutting corners when it comes to conditions of confinement. Numerous lawsuits have been filed against CCA, GEO, and other companies charging unconstitutional prison conditions such as lack of medical care and excessive use of force and solitary confinement. Just as insidious, private prisons have an incentive to maximize the number of days served by each person sentenced to its custody by meting out excessive infractions and thereby preventing earlier release. A 2015 study in Mississippi, where 40 percent of prison beds are in private prisons, showed that people assigned to private prisons are likely to serve two to three times more months behind bars than those assigned to public prisons. That extra time translates into an average of $3,000 more per person incarcerated at the expense of fairness and equal treatment.
The practical reasons to divest are becoming increasingly apparent. First, the national prison population has declined for the past seven consecutive years, and that trend is likely not only to continue, but to accelerate as the criminal justice reform movement grows more powerful and Congress and state legislatures respond by adopting sentencing reforms. Criminal justice reform is one of the very few issues about which there is bipartisan agreement. JustLeadershipUSA’s goal of cutting the correctional population in half by 2030 is not an unrealistic one. Second, the private prison industry is facing significant legal challenges. Scores of lawsuits have been filed against private facilities and in many cases the courts are finding for the plaintiffs – men, women and adolescents serving time in for-profit prisons. Last year, for example, the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado authorized a multi-million dollar federal class action lawsuit against the GEO Group to go forward. The lawsuit accuses GEO of slave labor, forcing its immigrant residents to do janitorial and maintenance work under threat of solitary confinement in violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).
My criticisms of the private prison industry should in no way be read as an endorsement of our government-led jails and prisons. They too are overcrowded, unsafe, and inhumane. I speak from personal experience. As a young man, I was incarcerated for six years in New York State prisons. My take away from that experience was that our criminal justice system suffers from a severe case of hypocrisy and racism. Rather than rehabilitate, it grinds people down and leaves them with the life-long stigma of a criminal record. For these reasons and more, prisons, whether public or private, are a bad investment.
Glenn E. Martin is the Founder and President of JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA) , an organization that aims to cut the US correctional population in half by 2030 by elevating and amplifying the voice of people most impacted by crime and incarceration, and positioning them as informed, empowered reform partners.