On Thursday, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced in a memo that, over time, the DOJ will end its contracts with private prison companies that operate 13 facilities within the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). While this is a significant move given the times we live in, these contracts, with Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group Inc., only account for 7% of the industry’s revenue.

When I first learned about the prison-industrial complex as a thing, I was a freshman in college listening to Angela Davis inspire us young folks into action and awareness. That was also how I learned about the systemic ugliness of America, and with that lesson I was truly awakened to the  targeting of Black and Brown people in our criminal justice system.

I was naive enough to be blown away by the privatizing of the prison industry, where corporations are building and managing prison facilities as their means to a profit and the government is in on it. Now, with news that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)  will be phasing out its private prison contracts, I will not be naive enough to claim this as a victory for the Movement, but it is a step. The most important part of this real-time moment in history is that we read the fine print.

How Did We Get Here?

The history of prisons in the U.S. has been a cycle of “attempts” to improve living conditions on the inside as the “need” for incarceration rises on the outside, leading to overcrowding in facilities and less resources to make rehabilitation a possibility. The War on Drugs of the 1980s served as a catalyst for today’s current state of mass incarceration.

“Between 1980 and 2013, the federal prison population increased by almost 800%,” Yates wrote in the memo, “often at a far faster rate than the Federal Bureau of Prisons could accommodate.” For this reason, as described in the memo, the BOP contracted with private prison corporations.

As capitalism would have it, the 1980s became an opportunity for companies that were providing private services (such as medical) to prisons to grow and offer their services in prison management to state and federal prisons. Corrections Corporation of America was one of the first, and today has grown to operate 65 facilities which house over 100,000 inmates.

With the U.S. testing its options with private prison companies, the result was the BOP housing 15% of its inmates in privately run prisons – 30,000 people by 2013. Compare that to the 130,000 people jailed in these facilities around the U.S. and these contracts seem like just a drop in the bucket.

Movement to Divest

There are countless problems with prisons being privatized. The DOJ memo named a few of them, conceding that these facilities “are both less safe and less effective at providing correctional services than those run by the government.” It is clear that the private prison industry is not interested in rehabilitation; rather, the industry advocates for policies that put more people in jail so that they can have more beds to fill and space to rent to state and federal governments. In 2012, it was reported that the industry spent $45 million on lobbying and made over $5 billion alone on detaining immigrants.

Calls have been made for the divestment of private prisons, especially on college campuses. In December of 2015, California’s Black student activist group Afrikan Black Coalition announced that their efforts to get University of California, Berkeley to divest from private prison companies were successful. Berkeley began to sell its shares – worth $25 million – that were invested in two private prison corporations, Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group Inc. Just recently, organizations aligned with the Movement for Black Lives issued a platform that calls for the disinvestment in privatized criminal justice related services, including prisons.

Within the last two years of a blossoming civil rights movement, discoveries like this have stopped surprising me. Five years ago, maybe even three years ago, I would have been surprised to learn that a university would have investments in the private prison industry, and I would have been surprised that groups even have to advocate against these corporations, because morals. But as many of us understand now, profit over people is real and lucrative in a country where Black and Brown lives are criminalized.

What Will Come of This?

I was taught that we study history and consider our pasts so that we can learn from our mistakes and not commit them again in the future; that we will mess up as individuals but we are to take those experiences and turn them into a chance to better ourselves. This exercise is also necessary for the sustainability and forward progress of our country.

The history of prisons in the US is one you may not learn about unless you seek the knowledge for yourself, and now that I have done even just a bit of research I understand why. Angela Davis once said, “We live in a society of an imposed forgetfulness, a society that depends on public amnesia.” 

My hope is that the people of the United States and our government learn a lesson from the cancellation and reduction of the DOJ private prison contracts. While I expect a traditionally racist and capitalist society to criminalize and dehumanize groups and make a profit, I choose to expect much more from a government that boasts equity and justice for all. 

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