You might not know it, but there’s a hidden industry within the United States. This is an industry that makes tens of billions more than the logging industry or the coal industry, or even both combined. It’s an industry that beats out retail giants like Costco or household automotive names like Ford. And worst of all, it makes much of this money off unwilling human labor and forced imprisonment. Does this industry sound familiar? Maybe it seems similar to the bygone industries of America’s past, like the slave trade? Surely what I described is a relic left in pre-emancipation times! But alas, this is not the case.
The industry I’m talking about is the American Prison System (APS), a private enterprise composed of entities like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group. For the past few decades, this enterprise has sustained a form of modern-day slavery fueled by racial injustice and the incarceration of innocents. But how exactly have they done this, you may ask? This is how.
The primary issue with the APS is that it can, and has been, manipulated for profit. Generating over $74 billion per year and receiving financial support from both the US government and taxpayers, the individuals that control this warped judicial system from behind the scenes have the potential to line their own pockets off of the lives of others. But how does the APS actually generate the aforementioned profit?
Put simply, greater numbers of prisoners result in more revenue – individual inmates can bring in around $6,000 to $14,000. And though this may not seem like enough to make a profit, the number of individuals incarcerated makes this idea much more reasonable. Over two million Americans are currently imprisoned, with the United States boasting an incarceration rate five times higher than the majority of other countries. This in and of itself is enough to make a tidy profit, disregarding other actions the APS can take such as using prisoners as a cheap source of labor.
On top of this, the APS is privately owned, which means that there is significantly less oversight and scrutiny as opposed to a government-possessed organization – and as a private corporation instead of a public enterprise, those who control the APS also are more likely to focus on making a profit instead of enforcing and carrying out the law in a fair manner.
The primary argument for the continued privatization of the APS is that it saves the US money, as the government has less of a responsibility to fund a private enterprise instead of a public one. However, with the mass numbers of incarcerated peoples, the APS still costs taxpayers around $39 billion dollars.
So what reforms am I proposing? Over the course of the next decade or so, the APS could go through a gradual transfer of ownership, passing over infrastructure and utilities to the US government. A committee could also be established to oversee the prison system budget and profit to ensure that prisoners are not being exploited for a secondary motive. Though the government would have to step up in terms of funding, in turn resulting in a greater burden on taxpayers, not all hope is lost; a non-privatized prison system with an oversight committee most likely will begin to lower rates of unjust incarcerations as there are fewer loopholes to exploit for profit, meaning that there will be lower numbers of prisoners and less to pay in taxes.
The US claims it is the land of the free. But are we really? If we seek to be a model for other countries, we must discard the privatized prison industry and end this injustice. America cannot live up to its reputation as a place of opportunity if even our justice system is yet another way for the rich to line their pockets. Action must be taken, lest the insidious growth of this neo-slavery continue unchecked, damaging our nation to the point of no return.