Cells for Sale

By Si Kahn

Vol. 22, No. 3, 2001 pp. 16-20

Begin your journey through time in Durham, North Carolina, driving north on Interstate 85 towards Richmond, one-time capital of the Confederacy. Just before the Virginia border, turn east onto U.S. 158. Travel through Littleton, where members of the Lumbee-Tuscarora tribe routed the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950S. Pass through Roanoke Rapids, where in 1974 workers at the town's seven J.P. Stevens cotton mills voted to join the Textile Workers Union of America and started a historic six-year national campaign for a contract. Keep traveling through history until you cross into Hertford County and there, not far from where the Meherrin River flows into the Chowan, you'll come to the old Vann plantation.

These days, it doesn't look like much, just some cotton fields backed by scrub forest. But in 1850, it was a major plantation with more than fifty slaves. In 1860, only 611 plantations in the entire state owned more than fifty slaves, making the Vanns one of the larger slaveholding families in North Carolina.

But, if Corporate America has its way, the old Vann place will soon be back in business with a vengeance. Wackenhut Corrections, a multi-national corporation that builds and runs private prisons for profit, is planning to build a 1,320-bed prison here. They will operate it under a contract from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which plans to ship the prison 1,200 inmates from the District of Columbia, almost all of them African Americans. So Wackenhut will be importing well over one thousand Black men from the District of Columbia and imprisoning them on the same plantation where African Americans, possibly including some of their own ancestors, were held as slaves 150 years ago.

This is just one example of the ways in which the for-profit prison industry is changing the nature of criminal justice in the United States. The rise of for-profit private prisons raises critical issues for democracy, as well as for


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the balance of public and private power in an open society.

For-profit private prisons are a relatively recent development. The current wave of privatization generally in the U.S. is less than twenty years old and is still heavily contested. It's paralleled by the recent unprecedented rise in the prison population and in new prison construction. And, of course, for-profit prison privatization is emerging as a major factor in this dynamic, as well as a major growth industry and social phenomenon. Between 1990 and 1999, the number of prisoners in for-profit private prisons in creased over 1500 percent, from less than 8,000 to over 123,000.

This is partly a response to recent economic and political conditions. States, counties, and cities are hard pressed financially and politically by the "need" for increased prison "beds" and have turned to for-profit private corporations to


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provide them. By contracting with for-profit private prison corporations, elected officials avoid the need to go to the voters with politically risky bond issues for new prison construction. They can also report the costs of these con tracts under operating expenses, thus appearing to cut costs and "government jobs."

To for-profit private prison corporations, the issue is simple: the more prisoners, the more profit. This partly accounts for their aggressiveness in trying to privatize as much as possible as quickly as they can. In addition, they're obviously trying to grab as much territory as they can before resistance to for-profits prisons hardens.

But the private prison corporations have another strategic reason for speed. If the present trend towards prison privatization continues, it will quickly reach a "tipping point" where private rather than public prisons are the norm. At this point, any possibility of restoring prisons to public confront even less hope than it does today. As difficult as it is for inmates and theft supporters, including progressive corrections officers, to change conditions when prisons are publicly held and operated, imagine how much harder that will be if the majority of prisons and detention facilities are in private corporate hands. If all prisons turn private, their parent corporations will have no more interest in reducing the shameful number of inmates in this country than Marriott does in holding down its number of hotel guests. Through campaign contributions made possible by in creased profits, they'll become an even more significant pressure than they are now towards imprisoning the maxi mum number of people for as long as possible. Profit rather than the public good becomes the measure of all things.

The development and growth of for-profit private prisons has many negative consequences, including the current interstate commerce in prisoners by for-profit private prison corporations. This is one of the tragedies of prison privatization. Prisoners are incarcerated at great distances from their families, homes and communities, basically to suit the convenience of corporations. Many studies have shown that prisoners in these circumstances are significantly less likely to reintegrate themselves successfully on release and, of course, are therefore far more likely to be returned to prison.

This "export-import" business has a particular impact on the South. The "exporting" states tend to be those with higher costs per day for prisoners. Exporting prisoners is not just about solving prison over-crowding but about saving money, including the capital costs of building new prisons. The "Importing" states tend to be those with lower costs per prisoner per day, often a reflection of their significantly lower labor costs as a result of lack of unionization among corrections officers and other prison employees. Not surprisingly, the importing states tend to be in the South, with its historic low labor costs and lack of unionization.

It's possible to foresee a scenario where the South, already the site for so many of its own prisoners, becomes the holding area for many of the prisoners from the rest of the nation, the vast majority of whom will be African Americans and other people of color. The South already has a long and shameful history of incarceration and the racialized use of imprisonment as a tool of social control, including chain gangs and convict labor, which tend to make prison privatization more acceptable. According to recent statistics, almost 70 percent of all prisoners in private facilities are in the eleven states of the old Confederacy and over 95 percent of all private prison facilities and detention centers in the U.S. are owned or operated by Southern prison corporations.

Another negative consequence is the growth of "speculation" or "spec" prisons. The for-profit private prison corporations are using speculation prisons as a way of side stepping current state legislative restrictions on the construction of private prisons for designated state use. Speculation prisons are particularly insidious, not just because they side step the intention of responsible state legislators to restrict and control prison privatization, but because they create pressure for more prisoners. From a management point of view, a prison is like a hotel or motel: you want to fill every bed, every night. If you don't have enough guests, you do whatever you can to get them -- including supporting campaigns for mandatory and longer sentences.

For-profit private prisons have experienced incidents involving deaths, disturbances, physical, and sexual abuse of prisoners, than extent much higher than that in public prisons. To a large extent, such incidents are inherent to the operation of for-profit private prisons, due to their high employee turnover rates and consequent lack of experience among prison personnel. Experience at many prisons which have been established by private corporations in rural areas has shown a turnover rate considerably in excess of that found in public facilities. It is not uncommon for the local workforce to become depleted, with the consequent need to recruit prison personnel from farther and farther away. The long distances such personnel need to drive to work further increases the likelihood of high turn over rates.

Prison privatization also privatizes decision making and access. For example, for-profit private prisons can refuse to supply the basic information about their operations that public prisons are required to provide. Within the prison industry, such conditions, ranging from privacy to secrecy, are obvious incentives to corruption. It's difficult enough to


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control corruption in prisons under any circumstances. When you also impose the veil of secrecy and legal protection which is standard operating procedure in most major corporations, you are not only inviting additional corruption, you are also making sure it will be more difficult to root out.

For-profit private prisons are also one of the forces driving the increased incarceration of young people of color. Whole inner-city communities are being robbed of their economic and social potential as young African- American and Latino men and, increasingly, women are arrested and incarcerated, a pattern which is also repeated in other communities of color. The statistics related to the African- American community are both well-known and discouraging:

  • Of African-American men between age 20 and twenty-nine, one out of three is either in prison, on probation or on parole.
  • There are more African-American men in prison than in college.

It is common knowledge how devastating this development has been to communities of color. Prison not only robs young people of their youth, it too often bars them from future employment. Should we then be surprised when communities of color are left behind economically and politically? Or when young people of color say that


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things today are worse than forty years ago, that the Civil Rights Movement accomplished nothing?

One of the ironies of the growth in incarceration, however, is that it's created economic opportunity for some people of color. Increasing numbers of correctional officers are themselves people of color. Because public prisons tend to be organized, these employees enjoy reasonable wages and benefits, along with considerable job security.

But all this changes when prisons are privatized. Some for-profit private prisons pay wages that are barely above the minimum wage, with few or no benefits other than those required bylaw. Turnover for employees in private prisons is astounding, ranging up to 100 percent a year. Working conditions are both difficult and dangerous.

It is unfortunate that one of the few economic opportunities open to people of color in so many poor and rural communities is guarding other people of color. But as long as these are the few jobs that are available to them, they need to be good jobs, with decent salaries, good fringe benefits, job security, adequate training, and protection.

To summarize the political situation and to cow dude, three parallel developments have been taking place over the past ten years:

  • Demands by political leaders and, to some extent by the public, for more prisons, a product of our seeing incarceration as an easy answer to all social problems;
  • Resistance by voters to increased taxes and/or new bond issues; and,
  • The development and growth of the for-profit private prison industry.

These three developments are much more related than any of us have realized. To put it simply: Politicians are building careers on being "tough on crime" (which translates to many white voters as "tough on people of color"). So they promise to build more and more prisons. But they also can't go to these same voters to approve prison construction bonds, which would involve higher taxes: these days, almost any politician who goes to the voters with a major bond issue is putting her/his career on the line. So they're between a rock and a hard place. They want to build prisons so they can build their careers, but they lack and can't get the capital to do so.

Enter the for-profit private prison corporations, with their ability to capitalize prison construction themselves. No bonds, no referendums, no tax increases, no political risks. No wonder so many elected officials are willing to cut these deals.

But if for-profit private prisons become publicly unacceptable, politically risky, economically unfeasible, or even illegal, it will also create a different dynamic for elected officials. Without an easy way to build new prisons, to promote incarceration as the politically acceptable be-all and end-all for social problems, they may need to come to grips with the limits of the current criminal justice system. In such a situation, rights, reform, rehabilitation, and restorative justice again be come imaginable-but only in a public and publicly- accountable system of justice, as is not only appropriate but critical to a democratic society.

Si Kahn is executive director of Grassroots Leadership and is campaign director for the Public Justice and Safety Campaign based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Sidebar: The Public Safety and Justice Campaign

For-profit private prisons, jails, and detention centers have no place in a democratic society. Profiteering from the imprisonment of human beings compromises public safety and corrupts justice. In the spirit of democracy and accountability, we call for an end to all incarceration for profit.

Statement of Principles
Public Safety and Justice Campaign

The Public Safety andJustice Campaign (PSJC) is a cooperative Southern and national campaign to stop for-profit private prisons. The campaign was founded by community labor, student, criminal justice, religious, civil rights, and prisoner advocacy organizations.

Working together, the organizations cooperating in PSJC have adopted the following strategy:

  • Research: Sharing research information and working cooperatively to meet research needs. Currently, this includes developing an early warning system on attempts to establish for-profit private prisons and tracking state legislation related to the issue.
  • Community education: Training, speaking, and writing with the goal of moving critical constituencies to action, so that participants learn as they act.
  • Coalition-building: Bringing a broad range of organizations into the campaign, particularly those directly influenced by for-profit private prisons.
  • Public policy development: Working to counter the lobbying efforts of for-profit private prison corporations by educating legislators on the harm done by for-profit prisons and the need for legislation at the local, state, and national level to end prison privatization.
  • Crisis intervention: Providing organizing and strategy assistance to communities threatened by prison privatization, particularly those chosen as potential for-profit private prison sites.
  • Direct action: Creating opportunities for action, so that people's potential power is publicly expressed and brought to bear on decision-makers.

Central staffing for the Public Safety and Justice Campaign is provided by Grassroots Leadership, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, which has done community, labor, and civil rights organizing in the South for over twenty years.

Grassroots Leadership's executive director, Si Kahn, serves as Campaign Director for PSJC. Other participating organizations contribute research, legislative lobbying, public relations, legal resources and, above all, time and expertise.

If you'd like to help the Public Safety and Justice Campaign stop for-profit private prisons, we invite you to do any or all of the following:

  • Ask your organization to officially adopt the statement of principles and send a confirming letter PSJC at the above address.
  • Let PSJC know about any action you're taking to stop for-profit private prisons, including lessons learned that might be helpful to others.
  • Share research with PSJC, including any advance information about where the prison privateers may be going next.
  • Put PSJC in touch with others who are active on the issue, including local leaders, lawyers, researchers. legislators, writers, organizers, and anyone else who is fighting for justice on this issue.
  • Receive our daily email bulletins by sending an email to: ken@flpba.org.
  • Visit the Public Safety and Justice Campaign website at www.stopprivateprisons.org.

For more information, please contact
Si Kahn, Campaign Director
Public Safety and Justice Campaign
P.O. Box 36006, Charlotte, North Carolina 28236
704-376-9206 phone; 704-332-0445 fax
email skahn00000@aol.com

Sidebar: Old Vann Plantation

I was hiding in the brush
By the Ohio River
Sarah by my side
The baby in my arms
When the slavecatchers found us
With our backs against the water
Winter come late
And the ice not formed

And they sold me back South
To the old Vann Plantation
Two hundred miles
From my home and kin
To be buried in a grave
With no marker on it
Right on the spot
Where the new prison stands
Right on the spot
Where the new prison stands

I was walking the streets
By the Anacostia River
But no one was hiring
A young Black man
Wben the District police
Picked me up for no reason
Gave me 15 years
For less than ten grams

And they sent me down South
To the old Vann Plantation
Two hundred miles
From my home and kin
To be buried in a cell
In a for-profit prison
To make some men rich
From the trouble I'm in
To make some men rich
From the trouble I'm in

There were four million slaves
From the African nation
Now there's two million prisoners
In the land of the free
It might be right on this spot
That my great-great-grandmother
Had done to her
What they're doing to me

I can feel her spirit
On the old Vann Plantation
Beneath the towers
And the razor wire
All for the profit
Of some prison corporation
If you say that's not slavery
You're a goddamn liar
If you say that's not slavery
You're a goddamn liar

Copyright 2000 Joe Hill Music (ASCAP). All rights reserved.