Prisons to face structural changes

Cliff Soloway, Contributing Writer

This is an opinion article and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Tulane Hullabaloo.

On Aug. 18, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates released a memo that called for reduced reliance on private prisons within the Department of Justice. The decision followed a recent report by the Office of the Inspector General discussing a range of inadequacies and an investigatory series published in “The Nation” revealing a pattern of inmate deaths resulting from underfunded medical care.

This seemingly forthright move against corporate prisons initially might incite hope in its rejection of the incarceration industry, but there are several issues that should caution against unbridled optimism.

Corporate prisons are corrosive because they are part of an industry with a vested interest in imprisoning more people for longer. They must maintain their source of raw material, individuals convicted of crimes, without necessarily remaining true to the pretense of providing a service to the American people.

In her book “Are Prisons Obsolete?” Angela Y. Davis, prison activist and professor of feminist studies at the University of California-Santa Cruz, points out the role of corporations in incarceration.

“Corporations producing all kinds of goods — from buildings to electronic devices and hygiene products — and providing all kinds of services—from meals to therapy and healthcare — are now directly involved in the punishment business,” Davis said in her book. As a result, incarceration rates have risen above the crime rates with which they should theoretically correlate directly.

Between 1991 and 2010, the rate of imprisonment continued to increase while crime rates were on the decline. 

According to Bruce Reilly, deputy director of the New Orleans Voice Of The Ex-Offender, rates of incarceration rose so steadily because politicians wished to keep unemployment rates low; conveniently, incarcerated persons are not considered in traditional calculations of unemployment.

Since Deputy Attorney General Yates stipulated that no private contracts be renewed once they run out, her memo is only nominally a break from the private prison industry. Reilly, however, emphasizes that no contracts immediately expired and points out that the next deputy attorney general may choose to renew the contracts that do not run out for five years anyway.

The announcement only affects the 13 private institutions operating under the Bureau of Prisons, currently housing a total of 22,164 inmates. This leaves more than 100,000 inmates trapped in private prisons. Reilly also points out that any federal action, no matter how broad, will only affect federal prisons. States maintain control over their criminal justice systems and their prisons are independent of any legislation coming from Washington, D.C.

Even if the federal memo were to be immediate and far-reaching, it fails to address the central issue at the core of the private prison industry. The DOJ decided to cut off ties with private prisons because the facilities failed to maintain the lives and rights of inmates, not because privatized punishment in general creates a perverse incentive for needlessly harsh penalties and superfluous arrests.

The “prison-industrial complex” will not be uprooted until the nation recognizes this fact.

“We value our partners, and we will continue to work with them,” the Corrections Corporation of America said in an official response to the DOJ’s memo. “In fact, this spring we won a re-bid of a Federal Bureau of Prisons contract for these critical services. It’s important to note that last week’s announcement relates only to Bureau of Prisons correctional facilities, which make up seven percent of our business.”

This response serves to prove that the prison industry is in no danger. 

Without a trace of irony, the company moved on from its accusations of borderline human rights violations to assurances that it will make money no matter what anyone says.

If the abolition of private prisons is a national goal, the DOJ announcement may be the beginning, but it is not an end. Addressing the profit motive behind incarceration will require a movement, not a memo.

Cliff is a freshman at Newcomb-Tulane College. He can be reached at [email protected]