Profit has been turned into a compelling motive for incarceration

By Storey Wertheimer

Circa 2009 in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania, the juvenile prison population is skyrocketing. Thousands of students are hauled off to private detention facilities for offenses large and small –everything from mocking a principal on MySpace to cursing at a friend’s mother is now deemed just cause for imprisonment. When residents file complaints about this arbitrary iron fist, an investigation ensues. At last, the truth, more heinous than anyone would have imagined, comes to light.

Private prisons had been paying two county judges millions of dollars to consign juveniles to detention centers. Later dubbed “Kids for Cash,” this scandal raised the crucial question: why are private prisons desperate enough for inmates that they’ll pay judges to lock up innocent children?

The answer lies in one word, sewn into the very fabric of every corporation: money, money, money.

The privatization of prisons has turned profit into a compelling motive for incarceration –the more people locked up, the more money made. In the United States, 115,000 people are currently incarcerated in private prisons. Catastrophically, individual liberty rests in the hands of corporations that readily admit their business strategy is to imprison en masse. The Corrections Corporation of America itself wrote, “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts.” With prison fat-cats extolling expansion, it comes as no surprise that since 2000, the private prison population has increased by 47% while the overall prison population has increased by just 9%.

With justice administered through the lens of profit maximization, private prisons will stop at nothing to continue raking in extraordinary sums – from spending millions on lobbying to moving their annual conference to Trump’s Golf Club in Miami.

But for thousands of inmates, the reality of private prisons could not be further from glistening golf courses and blissful Miami beaches. Constantly searching for ways to cut costs, private prisons have become bastions of depravity and danger. Overworked, underpaid and untrained staff have fueled an uptick in violence, with private prisons recording 28% more inmate assaults than public facilities. The Department of Justice found a significant correlation between private prisons and increased contraband, lockdowns, and sexual assault.

Private prisons rely on imprisoning people for minor offenses; however, this process is entirely counterproductive, making prisoners increasingly dependent on the system. Without any contact with the outside world, prisoners are not trained to thrive as lawful citizens, but instead, must merely fight to survive.

Because prisons often return inmates to the community with severe dependency issues and psychological damage, recidivism rates are astronomical; half of those released are rearrested within two years. Yet, the private prison industry is incentivized to avoid rehabilitating prisoners and preventing recidivism. Rehabilitation means their prison population will no longer regenerate itself; their current revolving door system circulates a whole lot of money.

Private prisons also target minorities and immigrants, with a 422% increase in the number of immigrants detained in private prisons between 2000 and 2016. This vicious cycle destabilizes minority communities – community members are locked away, churned up and spit out, only to be locked away again. Children who grow up with incarcerated parents are also three times more likely to end up imprisoned themselves. Ironically, from the private prison industry’s perspective, this is the perfect, self-sustaining business model; they profit from locking someone up, and a few years later, profit from locking up their kids.

Prisons allegedly exist to reprimand those who violate the social contract, and I agree that we should never make excuses for those who assault innocents or kill in cold blood. But paradoxically, that is exactly what private prisons are doing. We cannot sit idly by while prisons strip children of their futures, creating an intergenerational pattern of marginalization and systematic oppression.

It is embedded within corporate DNA to fend for profit. When push comes to shove, corporations will never prioritize social good if it means less cash flow. Because of this disturbing reality, the only way to restore justice is to completely disband private prisons.

But we cannot stop there. We must rethink the justice system as a whole, investing in rehabilitative practices to reduce recidivism. One such practice is restorative justice, a process that promotes rehabilitation through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.

Restorative justice relies on the premise that, “To be fully accountable, offenders need to acknowledge their behavior was harmful to others and take action to repair that harm.” This victim-centered approach holds offenders accountable while lending support to victims through victim-offender mediation, reparations, community service, and community forums. Focusing on healing rather than punishment, this process has an astounding success rate, reducing recidivism between 7% and 45%.

Private prisons merely strip innocents of their liberty and trap minorities within a broken, perverted system. When profit reigns supreme, our most vulnerable fall through the cracks. We can, and must, re-envision the prison industry, ensuring that our justice system does not perpetuate injustice.