The Sinful Irony of the Prison Industrial Complex

Those with "ears to hear" as Jesus would have said, have been hearing for years now about the reduction and the elimination of programs, services, and educational opportunities within the prison system. Centurion Ministries, based in Princeton, New Jersey has been working to free the wrongly imprisoned for 30 years. The now 51 exonorees had been in prison for a collective 1010 years for crimes they did not commit. My friends and colleagues at Centurion tell of life in prison that has seen reduced religious services, visits to the law library stopped, arts and hobby programs cut, laundry services reduced, food quality described as "drastically worse," price gouging for basic goods in the commissary, dehumanizing treatment of family and visitors, not enough jobs, radically fewer classes with little hope of being allowed to sign up for them anyway. The list goes on and on and on. While so many work for and preach about and campaign on ending the cycle of repeated incarceration, essential programs for rehabilitation and job preparation and learning have been systematically, intentionally, exponentially eliminated. Ironic doesn't begin to describe it.

The intentional withdrawal of programs ensures that the prison population will continue to rise. Such program elimination is essentially an investment in and a bet on the cycle of re-incarceration. When the cycle is multiplied to the nth degree, one can only underscores the "mass" in "mass incarceration." Such a cycle offers an indictment to the religious roots of the word penitentiary... penitential, penitent, penitence, repent... understood in the Christian tradition as process toward healing, wholeness, restoration, new life. To have a penitentiary system that is fed by an ever increasing population intentionally created so that many keep coming back... how religiously ironic.

But it is not just ironic, religiously ironic, it is sinfully ironic. As Michelle Alexander puts it in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, "Prisons are big business and have become deeply entrenched in America's economic and political system. Rich and powerful people... have invested millions in private prisons. They are deeply interested in expanding the market-increasing the supply of prisoners -- not eliminating the pool of people who can be held captive for profit." (230). In this case Professor Alexander is not strong enough, not explicit enough in her language, because it is rich and powerful white people profiting from the mass incarceration of African American and Latino men and the immigrant populations they like to call illegal. One is left to conclude that an intentional withdrawal of programs is driven not by justice, or by social science, but by an increased profit margin. It is an industrialized prison complex driven by little more than money. Prison reform cuts into profit margin: getting rid of mandatory sentencing for minor drug offenses eats at the bottom line, repealing three strikes and you're in, that's just bad for business.

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is trading today on the New York Stock Exchange at just under $35.00/share. The company went public in 1986 at $9/share. According to their March 2013 Investor Report, CCA is the largest privatized prison company with 44 percent of the market share, including partnership prisons where they are engaged in various business relationships with the states and the federal government for property development, property management, or prison services. They boast that these partnership arrangements have absorbed 100 percent of the inmate population growth from 2008-2011. Attractive investment characteristics listed in their power point to investors off their take on investment pluses. Advantage to investment in CCA nclude: the affirmation that future bed shortages are likely and will drive demand higher, an increasing interest in selling government-owned facilities to private owner-operators, an avoidance of the "high risk" juvenile business, and the notion that revenue is calculated per occupant not per room. In addition, certain contracts with state and local governments provide occupancy guarantees.

One major slide appears with this title in large letters: "filling vacant beds drives earnings." In the smaller print one reads, "Actual operating occupancy can be significantly higher than standard operating capacity." A vacant bed waiting to be filled only costs them $1,000 per bed per year. The numbers in even smaller print indicate if CCA was able to fill the roughly 20,000 available beds in their facilities as of January 1, 2013 their profit would increase $117 million dollars; profit defined as total facility revenue less facility operating expense. $117 million dollar incentive to fill vacant prison beds...mass incarceration, mass profit.

The Board of Directors are listed on the website of Corrections Corporation of America. The optics of an overwhelmingly white board of directors, with an executive leadership team dominated by white men leading an ever-rising profit making effort that relies on repeat offenders and mass incarceration of minority populations, well, it may be capitalism, but the optics are chilling and the irony of a justice system where commitment to rehabilitation and community reentry is replaced by a commitment to dividends and share price and keeping beds full, that's not ironic, it's just sinful.