Think of it as Monopoly, but more sinister: You go to jail. You don’t pass go. Your fellow players circle the board, accumulate capital. You hope for your lucky break, for the arbitrary roll of the dice to free you. While you sit, stuck, isolated, more impatient by each turn, you’re paying to be imprisoned.
Let’s take a step back. Private prisons are operated by corporations, paid with tax dollars via government contracts. The government pays per diem per prisoner; the typical contract for private prison services also includes a clause for a “guaranteed occupancy rate.” The more people are imprisoned, and the longer sentences they serve, the more money these corporations make. Cost-cutting and longer sentences are thus incentivized: Empirical analysis conducted by Anita Mukherjee, an assistant professor of risk and insurance at UW-Madison's Wisconsin School of Business, estimates that compared to those in a public prison for a comparable crime, people imprisoned in private facilities spend an average of 90 additional days in prison.
Since the U.S. contains nearly 25% of the world's prison population, private prisons amount to a multibillion-dollar industry. Local and federal governments literally receive "kickbacks" (read: commissions) from prison corporations based on a percentage of their profit. Private prison monopoly corporation GEO Group Inc. spends over $1 million dollars a year lobbying politicians to be able to keep contracts around immigration detention and monitoring.
There’s an old adage that it’s expensive to be poor. If that’s true, it’s even more expensive to be poor and incarcerated. Incarceration disproportionately affects Black people, especially from communities of poverty—and there’s a growing trend that shifts the costs of incarceration onto the folks who are incarcerated.
The costs of incarceration start even before you’re convicted of a crime. On April 7, the Baltimore Action Legal Team (BALT) sent out an urgent email about folks needing help paying for electronic monitoring fees. BALT's “Cells to Safety'' campaign began during the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown. According to BALT’s Janaya Brown, who is the pre-trial logistics coordinator, community residents were faced with the decision of going to jail or paying private home detention companies up to $19 a day to be placed on home monitoring. “You can imagine how quickly that adds up,” she told Daily Kos on a Zoom call.
With COVID-related court backups, combined with the fact that there has been a 500% increase in prison populations since the "war on drugs" started 40 years ago, “we’ve seen cases where pre-trial detention lasted a year,” Brown said. And unlike bail, even if the defendant's proven innocent, they still have to pay the home monitoring fees. That means community residents not even convicted of a crime could still be in debt to private “e-carceration” companies.
Incarcerated people find themselves in a Catch-22 situation: Jails and prisons have incredibly high rates of COVID transmission. Lots of public scrutiny put the Department of Justice (DOJ) under pressure to implement more safety COVID protocols for incarcerated people, so prison authorities reacted by imposing obligatory solitary confinement. Across federal prisons, even the lowest-risk offenders were forced into multiple stints of mandatory solitary—adding mental health pressures of intense isolation to “regular” pandemic stress and physical health risks.
If you want to stay out of prison, you have to pay big bucks—all this during the height of the pandemic, when businesses were closing daily and long-term unemployment levels rose sharply. “People were scared of being violated for non-payment. I had a client tell me: at this point, I’ll just turn myself in, because there’s no way I can pay. We’re trying to keep people out of cages,” Brown said, “so that they can move, so that they can work, so that they can stay with their families. We’re trying to keep people free.”
From convict leasing to corporate profit
The GEO Group Inc., the self-proclaimed “largest provider of GPS, alcohol and RF technology and services in the United States,” sells electronic monitoring technologies to governments. As of Dec. 31, 2021, GEO Group also managed around 83,000 prison beds and approximately 250,000 “offenders” and pretrial defendants. They made a total revenue of $2.26 billion in 2021 alone.
How did we get to a world where private entities can incarcerate people, profit from their labor, and make billions in the process? Daily Kos spoke to Robert Craig, a lawyer with Abolish Private Prisons (APP), who argues that private prisons are unconstitutional as they violate the 13th Amendment’s ban on slavery. "Our goal is that when people are making decisions […] about what the criminal justice system looks like, it should be led by data and experts, not incentives for profit," Craig explained.
But prison has been tied with profit since its start. In the convict-leasing era after the Civil War, “Black codes” criminalized being Black, and imposed prison sentences for minor offenses such as loitering or not carrying a work permit. With deep roots in slavery, Black codes were enforced by “slave patrols”—militia-style groups, a direct precursor to modern-day police. Children and adults alike were classed as convicts, and “leased” to mines, railroad companies, or in some cases, the same plantation they had just left. Craig told Daily Kos, “These plantation owners had no incentive to keep people alive. They could always get more cheap labor from the state from the convict-leasing system.”
As Craig put it: “prisons and industrialization grew up together. The Manifest Destiny era created a need for quick infrastructure […] and cheap labor. Railroads needed to be built; factories needed to be staffed. There are court cases from the time that say that ‘prisoners are slaves of the state’."
Yet there's a key difference between the state extracting wealth from prisoners, and private corporations imprisoning people and forcing them to work. For that shift to be possible, it required the war on drugs. According to APP, it "required this Reagan-ist idea that private parties do everything better."
The 13th Amendment has an “exception clause”: Slavery is illegal except for cases of imprisonment. "If we take out the exception clause, the state can't put people in prison at all. And if they do put people in prison, they can't make them work,” Craig said. “And we think that the exception clause definitely doesn’t mean that private corporations can imprison people. We think that's what the 13th Amendment is there to stop. It is supposed to stop a private person from being able to force someone else to work for them."
If private prisons offer any benefit, it's the flexibility to build more prisons, and faster. Craig asks, "Do we want that flexibility? If it makes it easier to detain immigrants? To imprison more people? [...] A more rational response would be to release low-risk offenders, or arrest less people in the first place."
Imprison less people. Release those unable to pay bail. Create restorative justice systems that fill communities, instead of depleting them. Stop incentivizing incarceration by bribing politicians with kickbacks. These reforms are a direct threat to the private prison business model. For-profit incarceration, which incentivizes corporations to essentially enslave private citizens, has a known nemesis: criminal justice reform.
Paying to be imprisoned
If it seems weird that these enormous monopolies are profiting off selling prison to prisoners, that’s because it is. Poor communities of color are disproportionately incarcerated; this leverages the cost of paying onto family members of the incarcerated, exacerbating the cycle of poverty instead of feeding wealth back into communities or reentry programs.
Loved ones report spending thousands of dollars to talk to their incarcerated family members, and attorneys complained of ridiculously high calling fees. Prices vary, but a 15-minute phone call can cost as much as $5.90 in Kentucky.
“There’s no concrete evidence that electronic monitoring reduces crime rates of recidivism,” reports the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Yet there is evidence that electronic monitoring and so many other practices are purely profitable. Nearly every need can be capitalized on; the same is true in prisons. From food to care packages, phone calls to clothes, human contact to public domain e-books, prison companies have many opportunities to cash in. It was estimated that in 2016, prison commissary companies made over $1.6 billion nationwide, based on data from a 34-state survey by the Association of State Correctional Administrators. The Prison Policy Initiative reports:
“These data contradict the myth that incarcerated people are buying luxuries; rather, most of the little money they have is spent on basic necessities. Consider: If your only bathing option is a shared shower area, aren’t shower sandals a necessity? Is using more than one roll of toilet paper a week really a luxury (especially during periods of intestinal distress)? Or what if you have a chronic medical condition that requires ongoing use of over-the-counter remedies (e.g., antacid tablets, vitamins, hemorrhoid ointment, antihistamine, or eye drops)? All of these items are typically only available in the commissary, and only for those who can afford to pay.”
Let's say toilet paper costs $2 in commissary, and eye drops cost $7. Prison wages range from $0.14 to $2 an hour across the country. It could take a day's worth of labor to pay for a phone call home or a roll of toilet paper.
Securus is a corporation that makes millions selling telecommunications services to incarcerated people. It’s eerie to read these sort of manipulative marketing blurbs on Securus’ website:
“‘$20 for gas and parking per visit or $5 for 20 min everyday if you want … yeah totally worth it.’ Destiny Choquette, Family”
First, it’s clear that $20 is an understatement—calls can reach exorbitant rates, and sadly the days of $20 gas fill-ups are long gone. Second, no amount of phone calls can make up for the fact that your loved one is gone, caged far from you, and that just principally sucks.
Where do we go from here?
The answer isn't that states can, or should, take up the costs of incarceration. The answer is that we should incarcerate less people, and end for-profit prisons. People go to jail over 10 million times a year in the U.S. Many of these arrests are the result of the criminalization of mental illness, substance dependence, and poverty. Leveraging more costs onto struggling families who've lost a loved one to the carceral system isn't justice. Paying imprisoned people slave wages and then selling basic needs to them isn't justice. What could justice look like in a world without jails?
James Baldwin, in his letter to Angela Davis in 1970, while she was imprisoned, offers a way forward when he writes:
“...we do feel ourselves sufficiently worthwhile to contend even with inexorable forces in order to change our fate and the fate of our children and the condition of the world! We know that a man is not a thing and is not to be placed at the mercy of things. … We know that a baby does not come into the world merely to be the instrument of someone else’s profit. We know that democracy does not mean the coercion of all into a deadly—and, finally, wicked—mediocrity but the liberty for all to aspire to the best that is in him, or that has ever been.”
This doesn’t have to be the world we live in. Chances are, there are folks in your immediate area working to end for-profit incarceration. Support these organizations. Support the Baltimore Legal Action Team, a team “committed to building the power of the local Movement for Black Lives.” Follow Abolish Private Prisons, the only organization fighting private prisons on a constitutional level. Find a criminal justice reform organization, bail bond fund, or anti-prison protest in your area. Freedom depends on the insistence that “coercion of all into a deadly—and, finally, wicked—mediocrity” can’t be normalized.
This story was produced through the Daily Kos Emerging Fellows (DKEF) Program. Read more about DKEF (and meet other Emerging Fellows) here.