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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How many more Trayvon Martins?

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A day after what would have been Trayvon Martin’s 19th birthday, a hearing began in Florida in another case of a young black man killed in a tragic shooting. The case raises questions about just how far the dangerous “stand your ground” laws are going to be stretched:

Jury selection begins today in the trial of Michael Dunn, the man who shot and killed teenager Jordan Davis outside a Florida convenience store in November of 2012. Davis was sitting in a parked SUV outside the Jacksonville store with friends when Dunn, who is white, began complaining about their music. An argument ensued, and then ended, when Dunn fired his 9mm handgun into the vehicle. As the SUV raced off, Dunn stepped out of his car and fired again. Then he and his girlfriend drove to a hotel, checked in, and ordered a pizza. He never called the police and was only arrested because a witness jotted down his license plate. Dunn, who is mounting a Stand Your Ground defense, claimed a passenger in the vehicle had threatened him with shotgun—or a stick. The police found no gun.

One of the many heartbreaking things about this incident (as chronicled in Orland Bagwell’s moving op-doc for the New York Times) is that Jordan’s parents discussed the Trayvon Martin case with their son. From Ta-Nehisi Coates’s interview with Jordan’s mother:

I knew what was happening in the country. But I spent more time trying to prepare Jordan to be safe, specifically being a young black male. I monitored who he was with and what he did. And I would have those discussions with him. But I didn’t know anything about Stand Your Ground until Trayvon, which I discussed with Jordan as well. Every time I saw a case like that I would just pray to the Lord that something like that would never happen to us. Jordan was in a safe environment. We were in a safe environment. Now my eyes are open. It does not matter where you raise your kids. It does not matter what your religious upbringing is.

There’s a terribly sad hopelessness there. Black families receive a lot of messages about responsibility and keeping their children on the right path. But incidents like this show how impossible it is to keep young black men safe in a society that clings to enough racial fear to accept almost any claim of self defense against unarmed black teenagers like Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin or Renisha McBride.

We live in a country where our Congress is too cowardly to pass even modest gun control measures after a massacre of schoolchildren. Where 1 in 3 black men will go to prison in their lifetimes and where a police department can make more stops of black men in a city than there are black men in that city’s population. It can seem impossible to tackle this toxic mess of the United States’s obsession with guns and living legacy of racism. But we owe it to Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, and Trayvon Martin, to try.

UPDATE 2/15: The jury could not come to a unanimous decision on the murder charge. Dunn was found guilty of three counts of attempted murder and shooting a firearm.

Oppressed bigots

The cultural shifts that made blatant bigotry less acceptable have brought with them new–and newly frustrating–dynamics. Some cling to colorblindness and ignore institutional racism, pointing only to the lack of overt, verbalized discrimination. People use the phrase “reverse racism” non-ironically. Opponents of gay marriage use exciting (though still limited) gay rights victories as “proof” that LGBT people are no longer vulnerable.

When taking on the frenzy around Melissa Harris-Perry’s apology for mocking Mitt Romney’s grandson, Jelani Cobb has a great take on an interesting aspect of these shifts: bigots taking on the role of oppressed minority. He points out that this “appropriation of victimhood” isn’t new, but it certainly has been on the rise with the harsh and overwhelming internet reactions to offensive behavior:

Like so many of our current maladies, the culture of reverse victimhood finds its origins in the Civil War, during which a region devoted to human bondage wrapped itself in the garb of an oppressed people shrugging off tyranny. A century later, in the civil-rights era, the South imagined itself besieged by “outside agitators” disrupting the heretofore amiable relations between the races. Conservatives, then as now, simultaneously denounced “victimology.” But in the decades that followed, conservatives came to believe that the problem was not the pronouncements of victimhood from the afflicted groups—blacks, women, gays—but that they had a monopoly over the matter. Their cause became an equality of grievance. Thus we have a Tea Party movement, whose members are sincerely terrified by the prospect of government stealing their individual liberty, while utterly unmoved by the concerns of those whose history is marked by the literal rather than figurative experience of enslavement. The truly damning facet of Romney’s infamous “forty-seven per cent” remarks wasn’t that he called half the country freeloaders; it was the concurrent implication that members of the extremely wealthy audience before him were the real exploited toilers.

The appropriation of victimhood isn’t confined to issues of race and class. Last November, Guns & Ammo magazine fired a longtime columnist, Dick Metcalf, for tentatively suggesting that the government has the authority to regulate weapons. (After sacking his writer, the magazine’s editor naturally delivered a profuse and unconditional apology to his readers.) Metcalf may have been fired for violating the orthodoxy of Second Amendment fundamentalism (though he described himself as a believer in that creed), but his real offense was challenging the canard, deployed so profitably by the N.R.A., that gun owners are victims-in-waiting, soon to be targeted by a government crackdown on their weapons. The singular innovation of American gun culture, in fact, is the idea that he who is most heavily armed is most vulnerable. George Zimmerman, and not the teen-ager he shot, is, for them, the model of victimhood.

Michelle Malkin imagines decent Americans under assault by equality bullies—what she calls a “tolerance mob,” enforcing political correctness with Gambino-style brutality. Last week, Steve King, the Republican Iowa congressman—earlier pilloried for claiming most undocumented immigrants were drug mules (whose calves, he memorably declared, were sized like cantaloupes)—sent out a fundraising e-mail proclaiming himself “the last one standing” against the intolerant liberal jihad that had driven fellow truthsayers like Allan West and Michele Bachmann from Congress. The problem here is not hypocrisy—the charge typically brought by the likes of Steve King, who writes that “Conservatives are to be tolerant of liberal ideology; however the left need not be tolerant of conservative Christians.” The problem is narcissism: that of those who feel besieged by protests against ethnic slurs, undisturbed by any real understanding of the history, or humanity, of others.