When the U.S. Department of Justice announced its intentions to begin phasing out its use of private contractors in federal prisons, many welcomed this as a significant step in the dismantling of a profit-driven model of mass incarceration. The decision will affect over 20,000 inmates in 14 facilities across the country, and follows a slew of incriminating reports by Mother Jones, The Nation, and the DOJ itself, all of which noted serious security and human rights breaches in privately administered prisons.
While the announcement caused a major shake-up around the country — not least of which on Wall Street, where the stocks of the two largest private corrections companies plummeted — activists recognize years of tedious work that preceded the DOJ decision.
Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, says those familiar with the private prison system were not surprised with the DOJ’s findings, such as the higher incidences of violence and contraband in private prisons. “The [DOJ] report included things that activists opposing the for-profit prison industry have known for a long time,” Friedmann said, but conceded that the decision of higher-ups to “do something about it” is a welcome turn of events. Opposition to private prisons has been ongoing for over 30 years, said Friedmann, whose own organization has worked on the issue since 1990.
Over the years, a broad coalition of activists have joined the movement, many taking aim at private prison companies’ bottom line. The National Private Prison Divestment Campaign, launched in 2011, has been a unifying force for groups as diverse as campus organizers, immigration advocates, labor unions, and Black Lives Matter. Over 200 partner groups have joined the campaign to lobby for divestment from the nation’s two largest private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group. Over the years, these companies have made billions of dollars of taxpayer-funded profits, said Daniel Carrillo, executive director of the campaign, and have contributed to a system that disproportionately criminalizes immigrants and people of color.
The prison divestment campaign modeled many of its tactics after the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s, noting the success of its broad, collaborative base and clear, pragmatic demands. Since its formal work began, the campaign has provided a framework for local organizers to bring the movement to their university campuses, workplaces, legislatures and religious congregations. The campaign has also overseen large-scale coordinated actions, such as a Divestment Week of Action and three national conventions, most recently in Boca Raton, the home of GEO Group. After years of strategic work, which has included its share of victories as well as setbacks, Carrillo saw the DOJ’s decision as the “fruit of this multiracial organizing.”
Yet, organizers agree that much work remains. The vast majority of inmates in the United States are administered by local and state authorities or by the Department of Homeland Security — all of which remain unaffected by Thursday’s decision. Institutions such as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement operate a greater number of privatized detention facilities, which have enjoyed millions in profit by detaining undocumented immigrants. “We hope that ICE and the states will follow the lead of the Justice Department,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project.
In the meantime, the question of implementation remains. The DOJ has called for a five-year transition period. “A lot can happen in five years,” Friedmann said. “Whoever is sitting in the White House after the November elections will decide whether the DOJ’s decision will go forward, or not.” Therefore, Friedmann said, “it’s time to crank up opposition to private prisons [through] more protests, more calls to lawmakers at all levels of government, [and] more social media sharing.”
The prison population is still staggeringly high, and it was overwhelming demand that prompted the trend towards privatization in the first place. The abuse and neglect now associated with private prisons will only be solved by reforming immigration and criminal justice laws directly, say many organizers.
Carrillo notes that private prison companies still enjoy a disproportionate amount of lobbying power in Washington, where they continue to push for “pro-mass incarceration and pro mass-criminalization” policies.
Friedmann agrees. “The DOJ’s announcement is certainly not a knock-out blow for private prison firms,” he said. “That will require more people to get involved in the fight against the for-profit prison industry.”
In the long run, Carrillo and his colleagues hope to see funds shift towards restorative, rather than punitive, measures. Profit has no place in the justice system, said Carrillo, but rather, “rehabilitating people should be done by and for the community.”