Incarcerating people of color more profitable for private companies

graphic by Chris Petrella and Josh Begley
graphic by Chris Petrella and Josh Begley

Thanks to the failed war on drugs, we are already what David Simon has dubbed “the jailingest country on the planet.” Decades of tough-on-crime posting have created an environment in which few politicians are bold enough to challenge the status quo. Politicians eager to fill their campaign coffers now have yet another reason to perpetuate and exacerbate a fundamentally flawed system as private prison companies use their influence to increase the profitability of mass incarceration.

The millions of dollars private prison companies spend to influence lawmakers is not surprisingly resulting in more poor policy. Think Progress covered a report on these activities a few years ago:

According to JPI, the private prison industry uses three strategies to influence public policy: lobbying, direct campaign contributions, and networking. The three main companies have contributed $835,514 to federal candidates and over $6 million to state politicians. They have also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on direct lobbying efforts. CCA has spent over $900,000 on federal lobbying and GEO spent anywhere from $120,000 to $199,992 in Florida alone during a short three-month span this year. Meanwhile, “the relationship between government officials and private prison companies has been part of the fabric of the industry from the start,” notes the report. The cofounder of CCA himself used to be the chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party.

The impact that the private prison industry has had is hard to deny. In Arizona, 30 of the 36 legislators who co-sponsored the state’s controversial immigration law that would undoubtedly put more immigrants behind bars received campaign contributions from private prison lobbyists or companies. Private prison businesses been involved in lobbying efforts related to a bill in Florida that would require privatizing all of the prisons in South Florida and have been heavily involved in appropriations bills on the federal level.

That same year saw a scandal in which a Pennsylvania judge was passing down draconian sentences to children because he was receiving kickbacks to send them to private youth detention centers.

Now a new study shows that the profit motive results in people of color making up an even larger share of inmates in private prisons. Why? They’re cheaper. 

Why would African American and Latino prisoners be cheaper to incarcerate than whites? Because older prisoners are significantly more expensive than younger ones. “Based on historical sentencing patterns, if you are a prisoner today, and you are over 50 years old, there is a greater likelihood that you are white,” Petrella explained to BillMoyers.com. “If you are under 50 years old — particularly if you’re closer to 30 years old — you’re more likely to be a person of color.” He cited a 2012 report by the ACLU which found that it costs $34,135 per year to house a non-geriatric prisoner, compared with $68,270 for a prisoner age 50 or older.

The war on drugs has swept so many people of color into the prison system in recent years that they make up a much higher portion of the younger prisoners. Private prison companies find ways to write parameters into their contracts so the burden of caring for older, more expensive, and more likely white prisoners stays with the states.

Chris Petrella, who conducted the study, emphasizes a lesson that must be applied to a whole range of racial justice issues in an age when people want to claim a post-racial society:

“One of the reasons I think the study’s important is that it continues to show how laws — and even contractual stipulations — that are, on the surface, race-neutral, continue to have a disproportionate and negative impact on communities of color.”

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Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

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