With a call to "end the private prison racket in America," a group of progressive lawmakers on Thursday introduced a bill that seeks to subvert the reigning "pro-incarceration agenda" by banning private prisons, reinstating the federal parole system, and eliminating quotas for the number of immigrants held in detention.
"We cannot fix our criminal justice system if corporations are allowed to profit from mass incarceration."
—Senator Bernie Sanders
"It is morally repugnant and a national tragedy that we have privatized prisons all over America," said Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, one of the legislation's lead sponsors along with Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), and Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.). "We cannot fix our criminal justice system if corporations are allowed to profit from mass incarceration. Keeping human beings in jail for long periods of time must no longer be an acceptable business model in America."
With the ultimate goal of reducing the inmate population in federal, state, and local facilities, the Justice Is Not For Sale Act (pdf) would, according to a fact sheet:
- Bar federal, state, and local governments from contracting with private companies starting two years after the bill is passed;
- Reinstate the federal parole system to allow "individualized, risk-based determinations regarding each prisoner and restore fairness in the system;"
- Increase oversight to prevent companies from overcharging inmates and their families for services like banking and telephone calls;
- End the requirement that Immigration and Customs Enforcement maintain a level of 34,000 detention beds; and
- End immigrant family detention.
"In a society dedicated to liberty and justice, for-profit prisons offend our bedrock principles," Ellison said in a statement. "Private prison corporations spend millions of dollars lobbying government for harsher sentencing laws and immigration policy that serves their bottom line, while taxpayers foot the $80 billion dollar a year bill to incarcerate 2.3 million people. Incarceration should be about rehabilitation, not profit. Now, more than ever, we need to restore confidence in our criminal justice system. Step one is taking the profit out of the punishment."
"As long as there are corporate financial incentives for locking people up and keeping them behind bars, reforming drug laws and other sentencing policies will produce limited results for meaningfully decreasing the astronomical rate of incarceration in this country."
—Kymberlie Quong Charles, Grassroots Leadership.
Grassroots Leadership, a Texas-based national organization working to end prison profiteering and reduce reliance on criminalization and detention, hailed the legislation as "a major stride toward a justice system that is obliged to put human beings over private interests."
"As long as there are corporate financial incentives for locking people up and keeping them behind bars, reforming drug laws and other sentencing policies will produce limited results for meaningfully decreasing the astronomical rate of incarceration in this country," said Kymberlie Quong Charles, criminal justice programs director for Grassroots Leadership.
The bill is designed to counteract the lobbying efforts of corporations that benefit financially from mass incarceration. As Vox pointed out last week, "A 2011 report from the Justice Policy Initiative found, for example, that private prison companies lobby and support politicians that back tough-on-crime policies like 'three strikes' and 'truth in sentencing' laws, which effectively increase the length of prison sentences."
"Our corrections system exists to uphold justice—not to house innocent refugees or feed the greed of corporate interests," Grijalva stated. "By treating prisoners and detainees as a means to a profit margin, we’re incentivizing jailors to lobby for ever more inmates, and for inmates to be denied even the basic staples they’re entitled to. The result is a corrections system collapsing under its own weight as the prison industry gets rich and countless innocent men, women and children are ensnared in their trap."
Vox further zeroed in on one provision of the bill, writing: "In terms of fighting mass incarceration, the best idea in Sanders's plan might be the provision to bring back federal parole."
"By treating prisoners and detainees as a means to a profit margin, we’re incentivizing jailors to lobby for ever more inmates, and for inmates to be denied even the basic staples they’re entitled to."
—Representative Raúl M. Grijalva
Reinstating parole, which was eliminated in 1984, "could let well-behaved inmates eliminate even more time from their sentences, depending on how it's structured," wrote German Lopez—"and it would potentially affect many more inmates' sentences than simply eliminating private prisons would."
The Huffington Post interviewed at least one expert who thinks the bill's recommendations are doable. Paul DeMuro, an expert on confinement conditions who reviewed a summary of the bill in advance (but not the full text) told HuffPo that "getting the financial incentive out of locking people up or keeping them on parole is fundamentally the right thing and the fair thing to do."
"Would it be difficult? Would it be time-consuming?" he said. "Lots of things are and government could do this, I think, rather readily."
Earlier this week, Common Dreams reported on new research showing how the social harms of mass incarceration in both private- and government-run facilities spread far beyond prison walls, with families enduring direct human rights abuses and women—who are disproportionately black—bearing the brunt of the poverty and trauma associated with having a loved one locked up.