Three trends – the mass incarceration paradigm, private for-profit prisons, and the rise of a massive immigration detention machinery – emerged within the past forty years. And there is a common thread linking them all: The private prison companies that profit from mass incarceration and immigrant detention.
As long as the for-profit prison companies have a flow of bodies into their prisons, they have an income stream. Indeed, CCA admits that their current profitability depends on high rates of incarceration. In their 2012 10-K report, filed publicly with the Securities and Exchange Commission, CCA describes drug law reform, immigration reform, and reductions in mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes as “risk factors” that could hurt their bottom line.
That income stream is guaranteed by tricks of language, distortions that hide what underlies both the criminal justice and immigration systems.
Trend 1: Mass incarceration
Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, with over 2.3 million men and women living behind bars.
This is a historical anomaly. For most of the twentieth century, U.S. incarceration rates remained relatively stable. But starting in the 1970s, growth in incarceration accelerated far ahead of both crime rates and population growth. Today, there are nearly five times as many people in prison today as there were in 1980.
How did this happen? A combination of the War on Drugs, mandatory minimum sentencing laws, so-called truth in sentencing laws, and three strikes laws.
The weight of these laws falls overwhelmingly on people of color. If current trends continue, 1 in 3 Black men born today can expect to serve time behind bars. In some urban areas, such as Washington, DC, this number rises to as high as 3 in 4 Black men. As a result, there are more African-American adults under correctional control today, in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850 -- a decade before the Civil War began.
Michelle Alexander calls this phenomenon “The New Jim Crow” because it has made the criminal justice system function as a new form of racial caste system, creating a massive underclass of Black and Brown people in this country who are denied voting rights, subject to job discrimination and housing discrimination, because they carry the label of “criminal.”
This labeling is a key element of what makes the New Jim Crow socially acceptable. Once a person is branded with the “criminal” label, it becomes politically and socially acceptable -- even desirable -- to deny that person rights that politicians would not dare deny on the basis of race. Yet the label obscures the underlying racial and economic realities.
Trend 2: Privatized incarceration
The rise of private, for-profit prisons coincides with the rise of the New Jim Crow as the criminal justice paradigm. The same right wing political movement that gave rise to the War on Drugs, “Truth in Sentencing,” and Mandatory Minimums gave birth to an ideological dogma in favor of privatizing essential government functions -- including corrections.
Trend 3: Immigration detention
Immigration detention is intimately involved with the birth of for-profit prisons. CCA's first contract was with the INS, to detain 87 undocumented immigrants outside of Houston, Texas. But it is only since the passage of IIRIRA (Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act) in 1996 that immigration detention has become the juggernaut that it is today. In FY2011, nearly 430,000 immigrants passed through ICE custody. The U.S. government now spends more on immigration enforcement than the FBI, DEA, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals, and ATF combined.
CCA and other private prison companies have profited enormously from this growth. According to the nonprofit Detention Watch Network, nearly half of all of the immigrants detained by the federal government are detained in for-profit prisons.
In immigration detention, the same labeling game goes on as in the criminal justice system. People who cross the border from Mexico to work here are not “job seekers” -- they are "illegals." And like the word “criminal,” that term dehumanizes them and obscures the underlying racial and economic realities.
The latest development is the literal merger of the criminal justice paradigm with the immigration detention paradigm. Instead of being merely “illegals,” immigrants are made into criminals.
For example, ICE says its enforcement efforts target “criminal aliens” – this is the same use of the word “criminal” being used as a justification to deny rights that we see in the criminal justice sphere against Blacks.
Another new trend is the increasing use of criminal prosecutions for border crossing, through programs like Operation Streamline. That is, border-crossing is now prosecuted as a federal crime. Today, CBP and ICE together refer more cases for criminal prosecution than the FBI, DEA, and ATF combined. In exchange for a path to citizenship, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform legislation currently moving through the Senate will impose various harsh border “enforcement” measures, including a threefold increase in these prosecutions in the Tucson sector and longer maximum sentences for these border-crossing prosecutions.
What does all of this point to? A need for activists and reformers – whether from the immigration side or the criminal justice side – to come together, expose these linguistic tricks, and make clear whose interests are served (and not served) by these various facets of the prison-industrial complex.