Land of the Free? Hardly. For Profit Prisons is America’s Greatest Growth Industry


The United States of America jails more human beings both in raw numbers and per capita than any nation in the entire world. That is 743 per 100,000 of population as against our nearest competitor, Russia with 577. Canada, which shares a long, peaceful border with the United States and has many comparable demographic traits incarcerates at a rate of only 117 per 100,000 of its population. China, that big bad Communist dictatorship does so at a mere 120 per 100,000. To put it still another way, the United States has five percent of the world’s population but twenty-three percent of the world’s prison population.

Fully two thirds of the prisoners are non-violent drug or alcohol related offenders. The war on drugs with its mandatory sentencing in many states and long prison terms has created a huge long-term prison population.

Incarcerated While Black joins Driving While Black. Michelle Alexander, writing in The New Jim Crow chillingly notes that “there are more African Americans under correction control—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.” According to the U.S. Department of Justice in a 2006 report there were over 7.2 million people in the American justice system via prison, probation, parole. One in every thirty-two Americans has been funneled into the system. The expectation for African Americans today is that they face incarceration at some time in their lives. The cost is high. When a mother goes to prison it is estimated up to ten people are directly affected. Paroled moms are not eligible for welfare or other forms of assistance. Prisoners cannot vote. In that sense, the situation is quite effective in suppressing black participation in the democratic process. Remember that two thirds of the entire prison population are not violent offenders. And, African American women’s incarceration rates, driven by drug offenses, have increased 800% since 1986, compared to a 400% increase among women of other races. Women have children. Kids need a mommy.

Undocumented Immigrants Ensnared in the for-profit prison system. 480,000 undocumented immigrants were deported last year. Fully half of detainees in the immigrant community are in private, for-profit prisons. Even those who seek asylum in the United States for life-threatening persecution in their home countries, and they are non-violent and not criminals but victims of crime are locked up with criminals in the regular prison system. Today, over 34,000 detainees who are themselves the victims of violence, intimidation, and threats to their very existence are “welcomed” and given safe haven in the United States by imprisoning them in jails and having them do three to six months or more of hard time.

Is this what America “give me your huddling masses, yearning to breathe free” is all about? It costs $122 on average to incarcerate a person in the United States per day. To parole the person and have them wear an ankle bracelet until their terms under the asylum granted them is worked out costs just a little over eight bucks per day.

There has been a 120 percent increase in the private federal prison population and a 33 percent increase in State facilities in for-profit prisons in just the past ten years. Private, for-profit prison companies like Correction Corporations of America (CCA) and the GEO Group look to increase their “market share” of the prison industry in America, taking over from State governments and the Federal government looking for ways to incarcerate more people, more cheaply. These companies are intensely lobbying and making campaign contributions to politicians at all levels of government in order to game the system and increase and ensure high and stable rates of incarceration in the future. In the last five election cycles, just the three largest prison companies have contributed $835,514 to Federasl candidates and $6,092,331 for State level legislators. That buys a great deal of “get tough on crime” rhetoric and legislation in this country and we will not know how much more will be contributed in future due to the Citizens’ United debacle with the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010. Our justice system now responds more to market driven forces than any need to provide for real justice for people.

The biggest elephant in the room for any xenophobic conservative Tea Party politician wanting to throw out all the “illegals” in the reform of a completely broken, harmful, and increasingly absurd U.S. immigration system are the children. What happens to children who have mommy or daddy deported by the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) imperial storm troopers that roam the land?

First, if the parent is a single parent and the child is an American citizen born here, the mom goes away and the child goes into the foster care and welfare system for years.

Second, if there is a second parent, the kids can stay with that parent. But while the other parent is awaiting the disposition of their case, the children are separated from mommy or daddy and cannot fully understand why the one who is so good and loves them and takes care of them is locked up like some criminal. A research and civic interest group the Urban Institute found that a majority of children showed behavioral changes during this process, that included eating or sleeping disorders, aggression or crying subsequent to a parent’s arrest. That’s not hard to feel emotionally. Think of mom or dad, a parent you loved and still love whether living or dead. When you were a young child how much did your sense of well-being and psychological safety depend on having mommy or daddy around to be with you? How would you have reacted if police armed with pistols from ICE broke into your home without a search warrant and hauled your mommy away and arrested her in the middle of the night and you were placed in the foster care system? Sound like fun? Sarcastically we note that it does not at all.

If the child is a foreign, undocumented immigrant too they go with their family upon deportation. That itself is a traumatic experience for a kid in any case.

Anybody thinking they are going to legislate immigration reform that identifies “illegals” and deports them en-masse ought to be incarcerated themselves. Why? Just one hugely vital statistic tells us the dimensions of the immigration problem in the United States:
A Pew Hispanic Report released in August 2010, noted that of 5.5 million children of undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. in 2009, fully four million were American –born citizens of the United States. As one commentator noted: How can you deport a U.S. citizen?

Essentially, immigration reform that deports well established and law abiding undocumented violators of a civil law and not any criminal offense stands to break up millions of families in ways that are just as heart rending as was the breakup of families when the United States had slavery before the Civil War. It’s that bad.

Has any Republican candidate for President understood this beyond Rick Perry, who was shouted down by his own party for even suggesting fair treatment for American citizens whose parents were “illegals” in his home State of Texas? How their stand on the immigration issue is at variance with the requirements of humanity is glaringly on display to all Americans. Their policy is based on fear, anger, being wary of the stranger, or foreigner. The Christian faith requires disciples of Christ to welcome the stranger and foreigner and to give them comfort and support. What a contrast this is.

On the contrary, President Obama has directed Immigrations Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials to launch a training program for agents that will target criminal elements among the undocumented population and leave those who are long established, work, pay taxes, and have children alone. It’s a smart enforcement strategy when Congress cannot act to fix the system yet. As President, Barack Obama has the power to enforce or carry out the law. As the chief law enforcement officer regarding Federal Law in the United States (above the Attorney General that reports to the President and the Executive authority he retains) he can decide what lawbreakers to prioritize for arrest, detention, and deportation. Why not nail the criminal element among the large immigrant population that actually would endanger all of us, while leaving peaceful hard-working people with children alone for the time being at least? But ICE officers have a Union that is opposing this move and refusing to permit its officers to do the half-day training program at all. Struggles for Justice supports Unions but in this case the Union officials are dragging their feet on the new program because they do not agree with the President’s enforcement strategy. They want to go after all the illegals and deport as many as they can without regard to criminal background. That’s wrong both morally and constitutionally.

What are you going to do in order change this? What moral obligation does the citizen have to help in some small way to right this wrong? Struggles for Justice supports a full amnesty program for immigrant families who have been here for any length of time and are well established, and are not engaging in criminal behavior. And the well-being of millions of U.S. citizens who are the children of undocumented parents deserve better. So do the kids who are undocumented themselves.

Remember four million out of five and a half million Hispanic kids who have undocumented parents are themselves citizens of the United States of America. They want mommy and daddy to be U.S. citizens too! Let’s help them make that possible.

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2 thoughts on “Land of the Free? Hardly. For Profit Prisons is America’s Greatest Growth Industry

  1. interesting isnt it? Especially that China has only a 1/3 the prison [population and in someways stricter laws regarding felonies

  2. I will say without a doubt there is unfair treatment with blacks in the justice system. I also think that most blacks live in the cities where the ability to commit crime is more readily available. What alcohol related crime are you talking about? Driving under the influence is a crime that isn’t taken serious enough. Also if you don’t want to go to prison don’t commit a crime. If drug laws are so tough, don’t do drugs! If you don’t want to get deported, then don’t commit any crime, civil or criminal while you are here!

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