The federal Bureau of Prisons recently released a decision to let contracts with private prisons expire. It has spawned a somewhat new conversation around incarceration, which many of us have been living, breathing, and discussing for decades. Here are VOTE’s thoughts.
Three questions to ask regarding any prison reform
First, it is important to consider whether new reform will reduce the number of people in cages, if it will only “move the furniture around” or, worse, will end up increasing the number of people in prison. For example, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California’s prisons were so overcrowded that incarceration was “cruel and unusual punishment,” California relocated their prisoners instead of releasing some. The new facilities were a combination of taxpayer-owned, and rented from private corporations. This is “moving around the furniture.”
The second question to ask is whether new reform will lead to more humane conditions in prisons. Ending solitary confinement or outlawing the use of stun belts, for instance, will vastly reduce daily incidents of torture in America. Although some advocates focus their energy on alternative approaches to incarceration, there is still great need to address the painful realities occurring today.
Finally, we must consider who is impacted by the decision. And who is not. Each state has its own criminal justice system. Few people fully understand that the President, and to some extent Congress, only hold control over federal prisons. With over 90% of all people held in state prisons and jails, Presidential announcements or Congressional dollars are only so persuasive. Unfortunately, there is also no guarantee that the government will indeed stop putting BOP prisoners in corporate-owned prisons. The next president could easily reverse course.
The other important group impacted by this decision are detained immigrants. This announcement only has real teeth if the federal government also stops using corporate-controlled prisons for this purpose.
Where do we go from here?
The good news is that the nationwide conversation on mass incarceration continues. And the groups with financial incentive to maintain the system have been un-invited to the table.
It’s unlikely that anyone is feeling bad for the corporate shareholders whose portfolios took a bit of a hit because of this decision. Perhaps fewer lobbyists will “indirectly” push policymakers to support incarcerating more Americans and immigrants. Perhaps fewer conferences and trade show booths will tout the benefits of a slightly cheaper, although slightly more brutal, alternative to public prisons. Perhaps the obvious, horrific outcomes that result from cutting labor and medical costs to increase revenues, because the facilities don’t offer many cost-saving options in food or amenities, will lessen.
It is unclear if this decision will actually reduce the prison population or make conditions more humane. The federal government now believes that private prison facilities are less humane, based on the Inspector General’s report, but the Department of Justice did not say that a single person would go home.
Hopefully the symbolic aspect of this announcement alone will serve to dismantle a system that utilizes incarcerated individuals to generate income. But if the decision does not accompany state reforms — such as parole eligibility, shortening of sentences, health care for the incarcerated, community oversight, reduced post-incarceration discrimination, and a public health approach to drug use and mental illness — it will only serve as a precursor to expanding public prisons, and have little to no impact on the causes of mass incarceration in this country.
Where this announcement resides in the history of mass incarceration in America likely won’t be clear for a decade.