Justice in the Era of Private Prisons

From the border. Image via John Dorhauer. 

How blind have we been to let the prison industrial complex grow more than 700 percent in the last forty years, to nearly 2.3 million people incarcerated?

Although it’s not easy to repent from incarcerated America, we are called as people of faith to try – to dismantle this system that disproportionately targets people of color, low-income people, and immigrants and fills the pockets of prison corporations.

This is why I applaud the Department of Justice’s recent decision to cut ties with private prisons. But this is only one small step forward on a long journey.

Consistently cited for human rights violations, and known for grossly underpaying their employees, targeting vulnerable populations, and forcing prisoners into overcrowded facilities, private prisons have one objective: to turn a profit for their shareholders. It is not in their financial interest to lower either the initial incarceration rates or the recidivism rates.

Everything about creating businesses to warehouse prisoners runs counter to society’s moral objectives – including offender rehabilitation, reducing recidivism rates, increasing public safety, and lowering crime rates.

Profits are used to lobby state and federal legislators to pass increasingly restrictive laws – especially ones that free up state and municipal law officers to act as federal agents in the apprehension of undocumented immigrants.

While I was serving as Conference Minister for the United Church of Christ in Arizona, we saw lawmakers with ties to private prisons write and pass a bill, SB 1070, that authorized state officials to detain anyone under suspicion of being undocumented. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled most of this bill unconstitutional. It became abundantly clear the goal of SB 1070 was to fill detention beds and increase the profits of Corrections Corporation of America.

This is just one example of how private prisons can and do incentivize government agencies to target vulnerable populations in order to meet their contractual obligations with private companies concerned with profit margin.

Those profits are also used to lobby state and federal governments to, among other things, pass more restrictive drug laws and reduce the obligation for private prisons to negotiate with Union employees or comply with reporting standards that state and federal facilities must meet.

Private prisons are often cited for violations ranging from overuse of solitary confinement, feeding prisoners cheap and spoiled food, and sending prisoners from one state to another so that family visits become an enormous and costly endeavor. For example, Arizona’s private prisons took a contract from the state of Hawaii to hold some of its prison population. Prisoners with no access to family visits face higher rates of recidivism – which only helps feed the profit margins of the privately held, for-profit corporations.

Private prisons are an embarrassment to us all. They are the byproduct of a culture that will objectify anything if it can make money off of it. These businesses have found a way to profit off of the most vulnerable among us – especially people of color, low-income people, and the immigrant population.

Jesus was once asked, “But when did I see you sick and in prison and come and visit you?” He said, “Whenever you did this to the least of these, you did it to me.”

The decision by the DOJ to stop use of private prisons impacts only a small percentage of the prison population. The majority of contracts with private prisons come from the state level. Together, as people of faith, we must work step by step to stop this new racial caste system. This is why the United Church of Christ has called on our congregations to have an open conversation about white privilege, to study the issue and to advocate for stopping mass incarceration.

Recently it was announced that the Department of Homeland Security is calling for a review and study of their use of private prisons. But there is no need for such a review. We already have overwhelming evidence that human rights abuses are prolific. This is why today I call upon the DHS, and all state decision-makers, to end their contracts with the private prison industry.

We can no longer turn a blind eye to what profit margins do to prisoners, more and more of whom are from vulnerable populations. We are called to dismantle the corrupt justice system of mass incarceration. Ending private prison profiteering is a critical step towards restorative justice for all.

Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer is General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ. 

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