By Allison Bunker, CJPC Intern
When we examine the current state of justice in America there seems to be no rationality for why we incarcerate 2.3 million people. Yet if we peel away the layers of the prison system a possible answer comes to light: corporate interests.
The practice of corporations within the prison system are questionable at best. In prisons, emboldened by the thirteenth amendment, companies pay inmates essentially nothing for their labor (average pay falls between 14 cents and $1.41 per hour), and slap a “Made in America” label on the finished product. Additionally, millions have been invested in private prisons, creating a market that now brings in 3.9 billion a year. Private prisons and prison labor are stark examples of injustice; putting people behind bars should not be economically beneficial to anyone. However, it is not clear that they are the drivers of mass incarceration.
The practices of private prisons and prison labor are detestable, but they are not very widespread. In 2015, only 8% of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons were in privately owned facilities. Since 2012 the private prison population had also declined by 8%, in comparison to a 5% drop in total prison population since 2009. If private prisons were the sole reason for incarcerating people, why would we lock up the other 92% of inmates? Furthermore, when you follow the money being dumped into the justice system; it does not predominantly land in the hands of private interests. Each year 182 billion dollars is spent incarcerating people both by the government and families of those incarcerated. Only 2% of that is spent on private prisons, and only .37 billion is collected by those prisons as profit. The amount paid to people employed in government owned facilities is more than one hundred times the profits of private prisons.
Similarly, prison labor isn’t very predominant. Two of the largest groups that incarcerated people are employed via are Federal Prison Industries (FPI), also known as UNICOR and Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP). FPI is a government owned manufacturing company that as of 2016 employed a little over 12,000 people in 83 prison factories. From PIECP’s second quarter report in 2018, they currently employ 4,977 people. While we can’t know if these numbers encompass all people incarcerated, they would suggest that less than one percent of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States are working for a prison labor corporation. Furthermore, the FPI mostly contracts for the government, not corporations, and has not been financially successful. Meanwhile PIECP’s largest project only employs 220 people, and they do not have any other projects exceeding 150 people employed for a company. In the scheme of corporations these projects are small and likely not meaningful for their bottom line.
The justice system was not built as broken as it is to benefit a few corporations, it was built to maintain a lower racial caste of people, both while incarcerated and long after they are released. Even after they leave prison, formerly incarcerated people are labeled “criminals”, stripped of their voting rights, and under the increased scrutiny of parole that threatens to reincarcerate them for minor mistakes. Under these conditions the prison system succeeds in creating, and maintain, a lower racial caste which enables our neoliberal, capitalist system.
Capitalism thrives when there exists a lower caste of people to exploit, in order to have “winners”, there also must be “losers”. For example, the wealthiest 100 households in the nation own almost the same amount of money as the entire African- American population within the United States. The existence of a lower racial caste enables their exploitation, creating the inequality that is built into the design of capitalism.
We must acknowledge the real damages caused by corporations wanting to benefit from private prisons, and guard against the risk of increasing privatization in the criminal justice system. Yet in order to address the creation of a lower caste, it is not beneficial to focus only on corporations. When it comes to dismantling the system, it is vitally important to combat the creation of a lower status based on “criminality”.
We must acknowledge that the indifference of many Americans to the creation of a new racial caste system is why one is able to exist. As much as we may want the responsibility for the creation of our justice system, built to oppress, to be fully on corporations it is also just as much, if not more, a product of the American people and the capitalistic racial caste system that has flowed through every phase of our history continually retaining the power structures of the past, and present, while enabling massive inequality.