Notes on the Recent Department of Justice Decision To Move Not Renew Private Prison Contracts
Photo: (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)
The Department of Justice announced on August 18 that it will begin transitioning away from federally contracted private prisons, essentially transitioning around 22,000 individuals currently caged in 13 for-profit facilities to publicly funded cages. This perplexing decision is not entirely unprecedented, as seen in New York and Illinois, which both passed legislation prohibiting the outsourcing of prison maintenance work to private corporations a few years ago. Within the first few hours of the announcement, reactions across the spectrum, and new demands surfaced. In my role as REC’s prison divestment organizer, it’s been hard not to feel a wave of emotion over the news, and still be skeptical about its implications.
So who won?
Winning isn’t one dimensional - we don’t engage in struggle, push for - what some believe are - reformist policies with radical principles and feel like we’ve achieved our end goal. Criminalization and incarceration have been tools for white, capitalist America for years, and although privatization flourished in the early 80s with the creation of GEO and CCA, incarceration and criminalization can be traced back all the way to this country's colonization.
This doesn’t mean that the DOJ’s announcement doesn’t create a real (material) shift, even in the way we think tactically about our work. Nor does it mean that organizations and grassroots groups haven’t been pushing for years to get to the point where profiting off of criminalization is publicly unacceptable or that this decision is completely removed from that pressure. Understanding the spectrum of reactions is important in how we, people fighting against the prison industrial complex in this country, formulate our next steps and work within a number of new possibilities.
What the announcement does:
- It makes full divestment from private prisons at a federal level a real possibility.
One of the major demands after the announcement was to have the federal government drop contracts between private prison companies and the Department of Homeland Security, of which has over 60% of its facilities run as for-profit. Already, due to the national pressure placed, the DHS has announced that it will begin to evaluate its immigration prisons that are contracted by these corporations. This kind of reaction to the organizing done by folks should be celebrated, but also sustained.
(SIGN Petition demanding DHS cuts its private prison contracts)
- It sheds light on the human rights abuses experienced by incarcerated people at these institutions.
According to the Department of Justice’s report findings, private prisons contracted by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) have higher rates of assault, “improperly” put those incarcerated into solitary confinement, and they do not save significant amount of money. Using this logic, facilities run by for-profit prison corporations that focus on incarcerating immigrants need to also be eliminated. After all, if CCA and GEO ineffectively run federal prisons, what makes federal detention centers any different? Not to mention the violent human right’s violations these corporations have, of which the DOJ conveniently overlooked.
- It allows groups to use this decision as added pressure to end private prisons at State and Local levels.
This decision has already had an impact in the ways local groups pressure their state into canceling/prohibiting privatized facilities. In California,SB 1289 has passed the assembly and is on its way to the Governor to be signed (or rejected). The bill would “prohibit a city, county, or a city and county, or a local law enforcement agency from entering into or renewing a contract, or modifying a contract to extend the length of the contract, with a private corporation, contractor, or vendor to detain immigrants in civil immigration proceedings for profit.” The federal government's decision to stigmatize and make a contractual (financial) shift away from private prison corporations has already trickled into actionable steps by State/local groups.
- This announcement shows that divestment can be used as an effective and impactful method that sets precedents.
Although “financial” arguments are never at the forefront of prison divestment (and because at the end of the day, matters of investment, regardless of whether they are approached through the lens of morality - e.g. right and wrong - or through fiscal responsibility, still operate under a neoliberal, capitalist framework), private prison stocks have dropped tremendously since the announcement. Since corporations like CCA and GEO rely on investors to uphold their lobbying power and political contribution practices to promote expansion, a drop in stock value means a drop in investment. And because University endowments exist to hoard large amounts of money through “smart" investment models, the reality remains that investing in private prison corporations will continue to be a risky investor move. As institutions continue to divest their funds from the major private prison corporations it is only a matter of time before Universities and City investors realize that CCA/GEO stocks are extremely volatile. Since the announcement, GEO and CCA have lost a combined $2.2 billion in “market capitalization” , proof that individuals/corporations who own shares of a company have lost faith in these investments.
On Wednesday, August 24th shareholders of CCA filed a federal class-action lawsuit, “accusing the company and its executives of making “materially false and misleading” statements.” Similarly, on August 25th, a class action lawsuit against GEO was filed over the same reasons.
What the announcement doesn’t do:
- The majority of CCA and GEO’s profit come from the federal government's contractual agreement to incarcerate undocumented immigrants, meaning that the fizzling out of 13 facilities has very little direct impact on the profitability of these corporations.
Beyond this, CCA and GEO, the two largest for-profit prison corporations, are moving to expand in other directions, most likely as a strategic response to the public narrative win against profiting from mass-incarceration. Both GEO and CCA are now expanding in
Community and re-entry facilities (otherwise known as “half-way houses”)
BI (electronic monitoring, home arrest, e-care and case management)
Family residential centers (and pushing to obtain child care licenses)
The treatment industrial complex (through healthcare and other alternatives)
Through renting facilities to the federal/state government
Through the construction of facilities and through expansion of international services.
They are also looking for ways to directly address the concerns stated by the DOJ, especially around budgetary issues by offering alternative payment methods where those incarcerated and employed pay for their stay/those using ankle bracelets pay for the equipment and monitoring process.
None of this even begins to address the fact that at all points of someone’s incarceration, corporations (often subsidies of CCA and GEO) profit through other means. Everything from the food services, money transfer services, commissary, to bail bonds, release cards, and substance abuse therapy is privatized. This speaks to a much bigger issue around the neoliberalization of public services/needs.
To end mass-incarceration we must tackle the manner in which our capitalist government rationalizes the outsourcing of public services using neoliberal ideology. Because the matter of fact is that caging people is profitable and financially beneficial to both private companies and the federal government (in their ability to gain millions of dollars yearly through forced prison labor). The DOJ’s decision neither addresses the morality of profiting off of incarceration, nor is critical of the state which upholds private companies in profiting from and perpetuate incarceration and criminalization. While the federal government may find a problem by which these corporations run facilities, they are still one of the main designers of a white supremacist, capitalist system that uses carceral punishment as its main form of solving social, political and financial problems.
With this, it’s important to understand the analysis that holds prison divestment as a viable tactic.
The main goal of prison divestment is to break the political power of the private prison industry, which we see as a strong source of prison expansion. By breaking the political power of these corporations, while simultaneously expanding our political education of mass-incarcerations, its history and its roots to slavery, we hope to eventually move towards abolishing incarceration. Just like the DOJ’s move to cut private prison contracts, prison divestment alone will not win prison abolition. Like any major campaign that is part of a bigger strategy that leads to a grander vision, other methods of intervention and analysis are required. Incarceration cannot end without abolishing the police; it cannot end without the destruction of white supremacist policies, without the tearing down of the US borders, without the complete shift in the way our political system is structured and without shifting our country's economic practices away from capitalist interest and towards the interest of the people.