Racial Disparity in Private Prisons

Even within the criminal justice system where policies are supposed to be fair and where no one is above the law, racial disparities are still prevalent.

A study by researcher Christopher Petrella from the University of California-Berkeley reveals that there is a greater percentage of people of color in private prisons than public prisons.

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In order to remain cost-effective, private prisons contracts allow prisons to avoid housing inmates that require expensive medical treatment (who are often older), thus meaning that they will target prisoners who are younger and healthier.

As seen in the graph below, private prisons have lower rates of inmates above age 50 (and often white) compared to public prisons.

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(http://www.businessinsider.com/christopher-petrella-private-prison-study-2014-2)

The difference in terms of race and age stems from the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs has disproportionately targeted communities of color by implementing strict sentencing policies e.g. three-strikes law and mandatory minimum sentencing.

“In many ways, the so called ‘War on Drugs’ was a war on communities of color, a war on black communities, a war on Latino communities.” – Angela Davis

“You start out in 1954 by saying nigger, nigger, nigger. By 1968, you can’t say nigger, that hurts you. It backfires. So you say stuff like forced-bussing, state’s rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now. You’re talking about cutting taxes, and all of these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and the by-product of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.” – Lee Atwater, campaign strategist for Ronald Reagan

In addition to the racial climate of America after the civil rights movement, the profit motive of private prisons and corporations also exacerbates the racial disparity. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is an organization where corporate members like State Farm Insurance, Koch Industries, and PhRMA propose laws to politicians and vote alongside legislators for bills and laws. After this, lawmakers introduce the laws to their state. This means that corporations have a huge influence on state legislations, one of them being Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the first private prison corporation. The CCA introduced  series of bills like the three-strikes law and mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have allowed for private prisons to be continuously supplied with inmates to ensure profit, which goes to ALEC’s shareholders. For instance, the War on Drugs,  proposed by CCA and supported by ALEC, led to younger, healthier inmates, who disproportionately constitutes people of color.

Ultimately, Petrella says his results “shed light on the ways in which ostensibly colorblind policies and attitudes can actually have very racially explicit outcomes. Racial discrimination cannot exist legally, yet still manifests itself.”

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And it Just Keeps Rising

The graph above illustrates the the number of incarcerated American over the timespan of 1920 through 2006. As pointed out in graph, there was a huge spike in the number of incarcerated Americans with the creation of for-profit prisons with the CCA in 1984. This huge increase also coincided with President Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs in the early 1908s. Between 1984 and 2006 there was approximately a 400% increase in the number of prisoners.

My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard

In this 4 part miniseries, Mother Jones senior reporter Shane Bauer starts work as a correctional officer for a Louisiana prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Follow his griping journey as he investigate the true story of private prisons in America. Be sure to watch the rest of the series here.