Private Prisons Eat Our Humanity

(Photo: Bob Jagendorf / creative commons)

Private Prisons Eat Our Humanity

Somebody figured out, once again, how to build a machine that can quantify the life of an African-American man and make money off him. They figured out how to use the value of his body to fuel their machine. They learned how to drive its engine, and how to turn a profit. They call it prison privatization. I call it mining black gold, and I have watched black gold be mined from the streets of my community every day.

I make my home in Tennessee -- and for too long, so has the Corrections Corporation of America. To a company like CCA, our country's oldest and biggest for-profit prison corporation, each young black man that goes into the prison machine represents more than $20,000 a year. To CCA, a company that profits off of human bodies, mass incarceration equals mass profits. While their profits soar, we suffer.

Companies like CCA have gotten rich by perpetuating this madness. Last year taxpayers in Tennessee handed over nearly $100 million to CCA. Did CCA take our money and give us better, cheaper, safer prisons like they promised? No, they gave us abuse, mismanagement, and violence.

In one prison in our state, CCA kept people locked alone in their cells for 44 days in a row, not letting them out to shower for 10 days straight, and refusing to let them talk to their families. In another jail, CCA pocketed hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans' tax dollars even though some beds remained empty. In 2012, a state audit showed two out of three CCA facilities audited failed to meet the performance standard for limiting the rate of violent incidents in their institutions. This doesn't sound like efficiency or accountability or even human decency to me. It sounds like a profit-hungry company making money off of locking people up. It doesn't just sound wrong; it is wrong.

I'm not alone. A wide range of religious groups also condemn private prison companies, denouncing a money machine whose shareholders get richer the longer human beings stay locked up. Their business model inherently undermines the whole purpose of our justice system -- rehabilitation, not profit.

CCA's business is a much bigger problem than corporate greed or mismanaged facilities. It has become something that eats at the heart of the humanity in all of us.

The victims of the private prison machine are not just the black gold, the poor who propel the engine of mass incarceration. When this goes on in our community, it says something about the overall condition of who we are -- not just in the communities of the disinherited, dispossessed, and the oppressed, but everywhere.

When our prison population in Tennessee grows at more than twice the rate of our general population, it affects what's going on in our suburbs and in the communities of the elite, the rich and the successful. We need to see ourselves as an inextricable part of the machine. We don't need to end prison profiteering for somebody else, but for ourselves. It's not just somebody else's child.

It is time we break our bonds with CCA.

This will be an uphill battle. CCA will keep winning contracts in Tennessee despite its broken promises because CCA has paid nearly a quarter of a million dollars in campaign contributions to elected officials from this state. Our leaders aren't only part of the machine: they are feeding it.

In the end, elected officials work for us. We must tell them that we won't share our home with a company that protects its bottom line at the expense of our humanity.

Please join me in urging our state to walk away from its contracts with CCA.

We are talking about restoring our humanity. We can't take no for an answer.

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