The Business of Punishment

Written by Sal Bhakuni

According to a 2012 study by the Vera Institute of Justice, the average annual cost per inmate is $60,076 – that’s almost how much it costs for you to attend NYU for a year. But this high cost is necessary to feed the prison industrial complex that requires a constant and stable prison population to keep power structures in place under the guise of keeping you safe.

Historically, prisons are rooted in slavery and were used to criminalize the black community. The 13th amendment abolished slavery except as punishment for a crime. So, newly freed slaves could quite easily, be sent back into slavery, via prisons, if they were even accused of a crime. This allure of free labor allowed for the growth of the prison system and to eventually become privatized.

The US makes up 5% of the world’s population but accounts for approximately 25% of the world’s prison population. When prisons started getting overcrowded in the 80’s, the government allowed for the creation of private prisons and according to the American Civil liberties Union (ACLU) from 1990 to 2009 the US has seen a 1600% increase in the US’ prison population – and this is no accident. Private prisons have contracts with manufacturing companies and use inmates to perform cheap labor for way less than minimum wage, and since things are being produced domestically, the companies who own these private prisons receive federal tax breaks and have saved upwards of $900,000,000. This constitutes money they don’t have to spend on keeping prisons that safe or hygienic or providing counseling, professional, or educational programs for the incarcerated.

The fact of the matter is that private prisons are for-profit – they are traded on the New York Stock Exchange to companies that financially benefit from, essentially, slave labor. You too, can have your own share in the stocks of private prisons, just like countless other Americans.

Since they require a large incarcerated population to generate profits, private prison operators like Corrections Corp of America (CCA) and Geo have vested interests in drug and immigration reform, not because they are genuinely passionate about these issues, but because these issues have a direct impact on their business. In fact, private prison operators like CCA and Geo, among a few, have been known to spend millions of dollars to lobby politicians to support legislature that keeps prison populations high: meaning harsher sentences for pettier crimes.

Not surprisingly, prison populations are made up of marginalized groups – people of color (mostly Black and Latino), LGBTQ people, increasingly both women and the mentally ill, and of course, the intersections of these groups – most of whom are incarcerated for non-violent drug related offenses. And these people have essentially been cast away into this deep abyss, we call the prison industrial complex. They are denied of any agency or access to resources and therefore economic and social mobility when, and if they come out of the system. The message is that, these people are valuable only through their bodies and their ability to perform bodily labor – and when they can’t perform, they are once again cast away and denied access to help. But, what about corporate, white-collar crimes that have destroyed entire livelihoods? Where are these criminals represented in the system?

It’s easy to forget that these statistics and “people” we talk about each have distinct names, stories, and voices. This is the scourge of the prison industrial complex, it dehumanizes the incarcerated to the point where we don’t even talk about them, and when we don’t talk about them, we don’t talk about the real issues at hand, because in a sense, we are all complicit in this system – to some extent don’t we all believe that this “criminal” “justice” system is keeping us safe?

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