The United States holds the largest prison population and highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world.
When looking at distribution rates, White Americans have a 2.5% likelihood of going to prison for the first time, while Black Americans have a 16.2% likelihood. This statistic is staggering and shows a deeper issue within our carceral system, which is the targeting of Black and poor communities.
The government established the official federal prison system in 1891, although the first prison in the United States was founded in 1790 by the Pennsylvania Quakers. Rehabilitative labor and imprisonment became more widespread during the Jacksonian era — the 1830s. The use of imprisonment and forced/rehabilitative labor was not a new idea at the time and transitioned quickly away from the idea of rehabilitation.
Now the prison system has transformed into a punishment-focused entity rather than a place for rehabilitation and reintegration. This can be attributed to sentencing minimums as well as the continual dehumanization of people who are in or have been to jail. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 68% of released prisoners were arrested within three years. This high retention rate within the carceral system is purposeful and profitable.
Public prisons were considered the norm until the 1980s when the Corrections Corporation of America, now known as CoreCivic, was founded in Tennessee. The start of CoreCivic was also during the time of Ronald Reagan’s presidency in which the War on Drugs was being instigated by the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. Reagan’s participation in the war on drugs was most impactful to poor urban communities which housed predominantly Black people and people of color. The effect was worsened in these communities as many welfare programs also came under fire during Reagan’s presidency. Although there is debate on when the prison industrial complex began, the War on Drugs contributed to the pattern of mass incarceration seen today.
In 2019, Tennessee alone housed 29% of the imprisoned population in for-profit prisons, which is over 7,500 people. For-profit or private prisons are funded through government contracts and frequently these contracts are based on the time served and the number of inmates. This means it is in the prison’s interest to retain as many inmates for as long as possible to get the most funding. Currently, 8% of the United States prison population is housed in for-profit prisons, and as the number of incarcerated people grows, so will the percentage of for-profit prisons.
Private prisons contribute to the further corruption of the carceral system and coincide with the over-criminalization of drugs and the use of unpaid or underpaid prison labor. All of these issues mutually benefit each other. Over-criminalization leads to more people being arrested and convicted, which then leads to private prisons gaining a higher imprisoned population. The imprisoned people will participate in virtually free labor, which all benefits private prisons and the prison industrial complex by maximizing profit and minimizing cost.
Ultimately, the carceral system is treated as a business in the United States through the allowance of private prisons which benefit from the mistreatment of humans. The current focus should be shifting to a fully public prison system that focuses on rehabilitation and the examination of the circumstances that allowed a crime to occur. This is not to say certain people do not deserve repercussions for their actions, but in cases such as drug use or any other nonviolent crime, the current system is not beneficial.
The first step to ending private prisons is the acknowledgment that no matter the circumstance, human life is more valuable than a profit. Once this mindset has become integrated, then the work of actually deconstructing the prison industrial complex happens, which starts with the dismantlement of private for-profit prisons. This will then lead to the humanization of incarcerated people which connects to racism and mental health.
Currently, the prison industrial complex remains a human rights violation.
Lily Marcum is a sophomore at UT this year studying journalism, political science and philosophy. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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