Over the past three decades there has been a major lobbying effort to privatize more and more of our state and federal prisons as a cost-saving tactic. Most recently, prison-rights activists have called attention to the explicitly racist practices in private correction facilities. Outrage ensued after it was reported that private prisons in Arizona were profiting off of illegal immigrants. There is more: For years, human rights organizations have been calling attention to the inhumane exploitation of black and Latino prisoners who work for pennies void of any basic worker rights. In a study set to be published this Friday on The Society Pages, researchers Christopher Petrella and Josh Begley demonstrate that the populations of people of color in privately run corrections facilities in California, Texas and Arizona are largely over-represented when compared with their public counterparts in every case.
In a study like no other before, "The Color of Corporate Corrections: The Overrepresentation of People of Color in the For-Profit Corrections Industry," draws focus on the disproportionate racial composition of state contracted private prisons in each of these states. The report argues that private correctional facilities are explicitly exploiting vulnerable and politically marginalized racial and ethnic groups all in the name of profit. As mentioned in the report, this practice sends a clear message of the complete disregard our country has for black and brown bodies. It also serves to remind us that prison labor has its roots in slavery. After the Civil War, a system of "hiring out prisoners" was implemented in order to continue the slave economy. Laws were created with the specific intent to criminalize black people for trivial offenses in order to maintain the labor that was needed for farming, working in mines and building railroads.
Today, it is evident that private prisons promote recidivism with a goal of increasing their profit. For example, in public prison, inmates must participate in rehabilitative services. Privately run prisons do not promote rehabilitative programs because it relies on its inmates to come back. On the political scale, any community backlash becomes irrelevant because public officials can play dumb considering that private prisons are not required to adhere to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This speaks directly to the lack of accountability that exists within the private prison industry. Petrella points out that, "People of color are already over-represented in [public prisons] relative to their population share. Therefore, bringing transparency to the private prison industry would disproportionately benefit communities of color."
In a letter submitted by Petrella and The Human Defense Fund, they are urging Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) to reintroduce the Private Prison Information Act during the 113th Congress. The Private Prison Information Act would require "private correctional facilities that contract with the federal government to comply with public records requests made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to the same extent as federal agencies." Since Petrella and the Human Defense Fund put out their call to action, a coalition of over 30 not-for-profit criminal justice and public interest organizations has also thrown their public support to pressure Representative Lee.
The implications of the private prison industry not only has its roots in slavery, it is also indicative of the slow pace this country is moving in when it comes to true racial equality. It is time to send a clear message that we cannot solve the problems in the criminal justice system without recognizing the role that race plays in our prison institutions. Requiring private corrections facilities to comply with FOIA is a forceful step in requiring racial inequities be made transparent and help to break down an institution that is inherently structured to have a disparate impact on people of color.