New Research Examines Practice that Creates Overrepresentation of People of Color in Private Prisons

February 10, 2014

A new study by U.C. Berkeley researcher and Grassroots Leadership board member, Christopher Petrella, has been published in the latest issue of the journal, Radical Criminology.
The article, "The Color of Corporate Corrections, Part II: Contractual Exemptions and the Overrepresentation of People of Color in Private Prisons", expands on Petrella's previous examination of the relationship between race and prison privatization in California, Arizona, and Texas. Petrella’s current work turns the lens toward medical--and therefore age and health--exemptions in private prison contracts that enhance racial disparities in facilities managed by for-profit companies. His study concludes that people of color are overrepresented in private versus public prisons with similar population profiles.
Currently, private prisons are shaping their contracts so that they house fewer elderly and/or geriatric prisoners. The cost of incarcerating these men and women ($34,125 v. $68,270 according to a 2012 ACLU report) is higher due to the medical attention they require, so private prisons are making a conscious effort to position themselves to house a younger population.  
According to Petrella, "Figures published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics show beyond a shadow of a doubt that the older the prisoner, the more likely that prisoner is to identity as “Non-Hispanic, white.” Correspondingly, the younger the prisoner, the more likely that prisoner is to identity as a person of color. Today, most prisoners over the age of 50 were convicted and sentenced before the establishment of the so-called "War on Drugs,” a collage of policies disproportionately criminalizing communities of color. Therefore, the over-representation of 1) people of color and 2) lower-cost, younger and healthier prisoners in facilities run by for-profit companies is the result of racially discriminatory sentencing policies colliding with contracts that exempt such firms from caring for high cost -- elderly and/or chronically ill individuals."
The research highlights a component of the disturbing private prison practices that Grassroots Leadership has continually fought to end, the overt characterization of policies as "race neutral" when the effects are decidedly contrary. Framing these contractual exclusions as an issue of cost not only inhumanely commodifies those who are incarcerated, but makes it perfectly legal for private prisons to cherry-pick the demographic makeup--racial or otherwise-- of their populations.
“Christopher Petrella’s findings underscore the sinister nature of profiteering from incarceration.  Not only are prisoners considered commodities, their individual values and worth are based on demographic variables, in particular their race.  This is just one of the manifestations of the grave damage racism does to our social fabric, and it is unconscionable that such a practice should bolster anyone’s wealth,” said Kymberlie Quong Charles of Grassroots Leadership.
Christopher Petrella: Grassroots Leadership Board Member, Doctoral Candidate - University of California at Berkeley
Kymberlie Quong Charles: National Organizer at Grassroots Leadership 512-499-8111