Writing by Melissa Malick. Artwork by Sarah Dobbs.
In the 1980s, the United States and United Kingdom governments found themselves unable to
accommodate their rapidly growing carceral population. In the US, the Reagan administration’s
War on Drugs enforced over policing and incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders. At the
same time, the Conservative Party’s “tough on crime” policy in the UK meant stricter sentencing
of convicts. As such, both deferred to the most cost-effective solution: private prisons.
Companies like CoreCivic, which opened the first private prison in America in 1984, profit by
operating at a substantially lower cost than publicly-owned facilities. It should come as no
surprise, however, that such low costs often accompany significant cutbacks in guard training
and healthcare, as well as higher assault rates.
The privately-operated HMP Birmingham prison,for instance, has 156 more assaults for every thousand inmates than public prisons, annually. These billion-dollar companies not only amass wealth at the expense of the human rights of incarcerated people, but they have a vested financial interest in upholding systems of mass incarceration. CoreCivic spends millions in lobbying efforts every year. In 2012, the company purchased 48 prisons on the condition that states maintain a certain occupancy rate. Such conditions inevitably encourage states to employ stricter sentencing in order to satisfy their contracts, creating a sort of feedback loop. States hire private facilities due to overcrowding, only to then increase the carceral population at the demands of those same facilities. The process is counterintuitive and speaks to the corrupting legislative influence that profit-minded entities hold.
The UK’s prison system remains privatised today. Meanwhile, though the US banned private
prisons in 2021, they still use private immigration detention centres, which accounts for about
80% of their private prison system. Considering mass incarceration in America, however, also requires consideration of its entrenched systemic racism that is rooted in a history of enslavement and exploitation. One of the most jarring contemporary parallels is enshrined in the 13th amendment which abolished slavery with the exception of prisoners, who can still be forced to work. Most of the time prisoners are paid cents on the hour, or they’re not compensated at all. Meanwhile, their efforts generate 2 billion dollars in goods and 8 billion dollars in prison maintenance services, annually. Companies that are wealthier than most countries like McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and Starbucks, all syphon cheap labour from penitentiaries. This is especially alarming when considering the significant skew in the demographics of those incarcerated — Black Americans in state prisons are imprisoned at five times the rate of white Americans. Wealth-hoarding multinational corporations extracting labour by means of the prison system is thus discernibly reminiscent of the historical and systemic interaction between imperialism, racism, and capitalism. Indeed, even today the fields at the notorious Angola Prison, a Louisiana State Penitentiary built on a former plantation, replicates the images of its 150 year slave-labour past.
Recent discussions of a failure or inability to ultimately reform the prison system has led to
serious consideration of abolition. Incarceration proves time and again to be an ineffective means of rehabilitation, with recidivism rates as high as 76.6% in the US. Society is no safer, costs are still exorbitant, and outcomes for prisoners are not improving. The prison system only serves to facilitate abuse and exploitation of people from predominantly marginalised communities. Ultimately, we must question whether alternative methods of reintegration, like addiction and mental health services, will prove more beneficial in the long-term.