Mar 23 2014

Changing the Frame to Mass Criminalization…

I appreciate this article by Debra Small for many reasons (and not primarily because I am quoted in it).

The main reason that I find it useful and insightful is that Small calls for a reframing & refocusing of the movement to end ‘mass incarceration’ toward one that seeks to end ‘mass criminalization.’ This is something that I have started to do myself particularly in the past couple of years. For example, I recently facilitated a workshop about the criminalization of black girls that sought to address the myriad ways that black girls are funneled through the criminal punishment system (not limited to their incarceration).
These two sections of Small’s article particularly resonated with me:

For me, the problem is in framing the issue as dismantling ‘mass incarceration.’ There’s no disputing that the U.S. incarceration rate is a human rights disaster. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world, except for the island nation of Seychelles. It has become an international embarrassment for the U.S., in much the same way that legal racial segregation was in the 1950s and ‘60s. African Americans learned the hard way that dismantling legal segregation and discrimination was not the same as dismantling racism and the institutions that support it — politically, socially and economically. Similarly, ending the ‘war on drugs’ will not significantly change the circumstances of communities that have been historically victimized by racially biased drug law enforcement. The frame of ending mass incarceration is great for educating people about the consequences of the war on drugs, but the frame we should use to guide policy reform is ending mass criminalization.

Mass incarceration is one outcome of the culture of criminalization. Criminalization includes the expansion of law enforcement and the surveillance state to a broad range of activities and settings: zero tolerance policies in schools that steer children into the criminal justice system; welfare policies that punish poor mothers and force them to work outside of the home; employment practices that require workers to compromise their basic civil liberties as a prerequisite for a job; immigration policies that stigmatize and humiliate people while making it difficult for them to access essential services like health care and housing. These and similar practices too numerous to list fall under the rubric of criminalization.

The whole article is worth your time and consideration. Read it here. When folks are discussing ‘reform,’ we don’t all mean the same thing. I’ll be writing more about this new era of ‘reform’ in the coming weeks and months.

Jan 09 2014

A Music Video about Private Prisons…

I’m still on blogging hiatus but I came across this music video about private prisons called “Mississippi Lullaby” and thought that it was well done.

Nov 18 2012

Illinois has 1 of the 10 Worst Immigrant Detention Centers in America

This week, the Detention Watch Network identified the 10 worst immigration detention centers across the U.S. in a new report. The report suggests that:

At all ten of the facilities, people reported waiting weeks or months for medical care; inadequate, and in some cases a total absence, of any outdoor recreation time or access to sunlight or fresh air; minimal and inedible food; the use of solitary confinement as punishment; and the extreme remoteness of many of the facilities from any urban area which makes access to legal services nearly impossible.

Detention Watch Network calls for the immediate closure of these facilities. One of these detention centers is the Tri-County Detention Center which is the only privately-run immigrant detention center in Illinois. You can read a summary of the terrible conditions at Tri-County HERE (PDF).

Read more »

Jan 14 2012

“Too Good To Be True:” A New Report about Private Prisons

Yesterday, the Sentencing Project released a new report about private prisons titled “Too Good To Be True.”

The report details the history of private prisons in America, documents the increase in their use, and examines their supposed benefits. Among the report’s major findings:

1. From 1999 to 2010 the use of private prisons increased by 40 percent at the state level and by 784 percent in the federal prison system.

2. In 2010 seven states housed more than a quarter of their prison population in private facilities.

3. Claims of private prisons’ cost effectiveness are overstated and largely illusory.

4. The services provided by private prisons are generally inferior to those found in publicly operated facilities.

5. Private prison companies spend millions of dollars each year attempting to influence policy at the state and federal level.

The following table shows the dramatic increase in prisoners held in private prisons in the U.S. over the last decade:

Prisoners Held in Private Prisons in the United States



Change 1999-2010

Total Prison Population




Total Private




Federal Private




State Private






Jan 06 2012

Friday Musical Interlude: Fire in the Booth

I am grateful to a young man who sent this over to me last month. I have been listening to it often. Below is the video from Akala titled “Fire in the Booth.” It is 8 minutes long but you really should listen to the entire thing. You can thank me later.

Here is the song again but this time with the lyrics on screen:

Nov 29 2011

Detaining Immigrants for Profit

Regular readers know that I have written about the intersection between immigrant detention and the prison industrial complex intermittently on this blog. You can find some of the posts here, here, and here.

Just recently I’ve become aware of the fact that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is attempting to build a huge, private immigrant detention center in a small town called Crete, Illinois, just south of Cook County. A coalition of individuals and organizations are mobilizing to create an action plan to stop this center from being built. As I get more information on that campaign, I will of course share it here.

In the meantime, I have come across a few resources that I would like to share about how criminalizing immigrants is big business. First, I suggest that everyone check out the Immigrants for Sale site. They are doing great work raising public awareness about these issues. Below is one of their latest videos about how private prisons are profiting off the detention of immigrants.

Another resource that I discovered over the past six months is a series of audio stories by the Common Language Project about the history of immigration detention and also about how immigrants are being treated in detention in the state of Washington today. They are excellent and informative. I highly recommend listening.

The excellent PBS show called “NOW” did a terrific expose about the nexus between immigrant detention and private prisons in 2008. You can watch that report here.

Finally, I am privileged to own two limited editions of a zine titled Detained by artist Eroyn Franklin. The zine follows the story of two immigrants as they navigate the detention process. The publication is educational and moving. I don’t know if there are still copies available but you can see various photographs of the images which were displayed as part of an exhibit earlier this year.

by Eroyn Franklin

Sep 23 2010

Dear Small Towns, Private Prisons Do Not Lead to Economic Recovery…

I read a distressing article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal yesterday.

Apparently the town of Pahrump is welcoming a new private prison:

Community leaders in this recession-stricken town are eagerly anticipating the arrival of about 1,000 new residents, so long as they stay where they belong behind the stun fence and razor wire.

A new medium-security detention center for federal inmates is set to open Oct. 1 in Nye County’s largest community, and some say it’s already giving the town a much-needed economic boost.

The first paragraph of the story is all kinds of wrong but let’s move on.

The privately owned and operated facility is bringing 234 new full-time jobs to town, roughly half of which have been filled by local residents.

It also will bring in as many as 1,072 inmates under a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service.

“Nevada has the highest unemployment rate in the country, and Nye County has a higher rate than the state of Nevada,” County Commission Chairman Gary Hollis said during the prison’s dedication ceremony last week . “This is a very good day for many people in our community who now have a good, high-paying job.”

Nye County Manager Rick Osborne said unemployment in the rural county stood at 16.7 percent in June. At the very least, he said, the new prison should keep that from getting any worse.

The $83.5 million facility is owned by Corrections Corporation of America, a Tennessee-based company that builds and operates prisons across the country.

I really can understand the town’s desperation for jobs with an almost 17% unemployment rate. In addition, I am always mindful that there are real people living in real places who need to have their basic needs met. I am not discounting this reality. However, a number of reports have underscored the fact that while prisons can bring some immediate economic benefits to small rural towns in the medium and long run they tend to benefit the private companies and their shareholders a lot more than the town and their residents. A terrific illustration of this truth can be seen in the film by Katie Galloway called Prison Town, USA. The film shows the impact that a massive prison has on community residents and local businesses in a small town in California called Susanville.

The Prison Town comic published by Lois Aherns at the Real Costs of Prisons Project also highlights the fact that the purported positive economic impact of prisons for local communities is overstated to say the least.

AFSCME has put together a good mythbuster document about private prisons and their supposed economic and social benefits. You can read that here. Finally, in terms of other convincing research, Good Jobs First did a good case study of the economic impact of private prisons.

The final sentence of the article is symbolic of the place that prisons have in many communities:

At the request of residents, CCA surrounded the prison with an earthen berm that almost completely hides the structure from view.

Sep 22 2010

Crazy Prison Industrial Complex Fact of the Day 9-22-10: Top Black Imprisonment Rates

I decided to feature a visual representation of the black imprisonment rates in 2000 and 2009 according to the states with the highest rates in 2000. The states that are currently driving black incarceration are Texas, California, and Florida. This is in response to an e-mail request from Kevin T.

Feel free to print a PDF version of this chart here.

Aug 17 2010

Politicians, Money, and the Prison Industrial Complex

I have been meaning to blog about this subject in greater depth than I have. You cannot understand the Prison Industrial Complex without having some knowledge about corrupting power of money in our political system. I have over the past few weeks cataloged the intersections between commerce and prisons.  I have also highlighted the various connections between the passage of racist and anti-immigrant laws like S.B. 1070 and the expansion of private prisons.  Local and now Investigative reporting is explicitly linking Jan Brewer and her administration to big money supporters in the private prison industry and questioning whether the passage of S.B. 1070 might be connected to this.  These are steps in the right direction but much more still needs to be done to inform the general public.  When even high profile escapes from private prisons do not deter local politicians in Arizona from endorsing and advocating for private prisons, one knows that public pressure opposing these entities is not strong enough.

If you don’t do anything else, this week please take some time to review the following information about the Corrections Corporation of America’s Political Action Committee. In several easy charts, you can review which politicians received contributions from this private prison juggernaut in the 2008 cycle and you can begin to connect the dots on your own between our politicians and the expansion of prisons across the United States.  You will be able to see that while more republican politicians have received contributions from CCA, there are several democrats who are also patrons.  This is an equal opportunity attempt to grease the wheels in their favor.

Aug 06 2010

Surprise, Surprise: Criminalizing Immigration Status is a Boon to Private Prisons

I have been suggesting that S.B. 1070 is not only racist but is also a play to increase the profits of private prisons. As the Geo Group and Cornell Companies merge to form giant private prison empires, more research is needed to document how much money these companies stand to make by criminalizing immigration status.  As such, I was pleased to find the following article today highlighting a recent study by Grassroots Leadership about how criminalizing the undocumented boosts for-profit-prisons.

From the article:

Bob Libal, a co-author of “Operation Streamline: Drowning Justice and Draining Dollars along the Rio Grande,” presented findings at a panel hosted by the Open Society Institute in July. He noted that since 2005, an estimated $1.2 billion in federal dollars — in Texas alone — have been funneled into warehousing the undocumented in predominantly for-profit private jails and detention centers, while they await trial or serve sentences prior to deportation.

In 2002, according to the report, 2,770 immigrants were sentenced to prison for crossing the border without authorization in two Texas districts along the border. In 2009, that number soared to 44,517. “The expanded criminal add civil immigration detention system has been a huge financial boon to private prison corporations, such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut) and management and Training Corporation (MTC),” the report found.

More documentation and studies on this phenomenon please…