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'It's wrong to profit from the imprisonment of human beings and the suffering of their friends and families,' writes Sanders, who has introduced legislation that would end the for-profit incarceration business. (Image: ACLU)

We Must End For-Profit Prisons

Bernie Sanders

The United States is experiencing a major human tragedy. We have more people in jail than any other country on earth, including Communist China, an authoritarian country four times our size.  The U.S. has less than five percent of the world's population, yet we incarcerate about a quarter of its prisoners -- some 2.2 million people.

There are many ways that we must go forward to address this tragedy.  One of them is to end the existence of the private for-profit prison industry which now makes millions from the incarceration of Americans.  These private prisons interfere with the administration of justice. And they're driving inmate populations skyward by corrupting the political process.

No one, in my view, should be allowed to profit from putting more people behind bars -- whether they're inmates in jail or immigrants held in detention centers. In fact, I believe that private prisons shouldn't be allowed to exist at all, which is why I've introduced legislation to eliminate them.

Here's why:

For-profit prisons harm minorities.

The prison crisis has disproportionately harmed minorities. If current trends persist, one in four black males born today can expect to be imprisoned during their lifetime. Tragically, 69 percent of African-American men who drop out of high school will end up in jail, according to the most recent statistics.

The Department of Justice found that black motorists were three times more likely than their white counterparts to be searched during a traffic stop. African Americans are twice as likely to be arrested, and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with police. Further, African Americans are imprisoned at six times the rate of whites.

For-profit prisons abuse prisoners.

The horror stories from for-profit prisons are plentiful. Here are a few examples:

  • Rat-infested food was served to inmates by a private vendor in Michigan, and other rotten or spoiled food items were served in that state and elsewhere. The same vendor reportedly underfed Michigan inmates.
  • Privately-run prisons in Mississippi reportedly have two to three times the rate of violent assault as publicly run facilities.
  • A private prison vendor has reportedly used juvenile offenders in Florida to subdue other young prisoners. "It's the Lord of the Flies," said Broward County's chief assistant public defender. "The children are used by staff members to inflict harm on other children."
  • Nurses at a private prison chain in California threatened to strike over the inadequate health care, which one described as "unsafe," and there have even been reported incidents of patient abuse.

For-profit prisons victimize immigrants.

Immigrants have also been victimized by corporate prison greed. As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) notes in in an in-depth report, "The criminalization of immigration ... enriches the private prison industry" by segregating most of the resulting inmates into one of thirteen privately-run "Criminal Alien Requirement" (CAR) prisons. Another report, from Grassroots Leadership, found that 62 percent of all ICE beds are now privately owned.

For-profit prisons profit from abuse and mistreatment.

As the ACLU notes, the bidding process for private immigration centers provides "incentives that keep facilities overcrowded and place excessive numbers of prisoners in isolated confinement." It also reports inadequate medical care, abusive treatment, and "severely overcrowded and squalid living conditions." These are also true for prison populations.

Prison industry money is corrupting the political process.

The prison industry is highly profitable. The two biggest prison corporations in the country made $3.3 billion in 2012 -- profiting from government payments and prison laborers, who were forced to work for pennies on behalf of companies like Boeing and McDonald's.

With so much money at stake, it's not surprising that the for-profit prison industry is corrupting our political process. According to National Institute on Money in Politics just one such company, the GEO Group, has given more than $6 million to Republican, Democratic, and independent candidates over the past 13 years.

Moreover, as the Washington Post reports, the two largest for-profit prison corporations and their associates "have funneled more than $10 million to candidates since 1989 and have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts."

For-profit prisons are influencing prison policy ...

It's been money well spent for the prison corporations. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of for-profit prisons in this country has increased by 1,600 percent. There are now 130 private prisons in this country, with a total of 157,000 beds.

Through organizations like ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), the prison industry has promoted state laws that increase incarceration rates for nonviolent offenses.

... and immigration policy.

A report from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs outlines some of the ways in which private prison corporations have tried to influence immigration policy and increase incarceration rates, apparently with great success.

Grassroots Leadership found that, "contrary to private prison corporation claims that they do not lobby on issues related to immigration policy, between 2008 and 2014, CCA spent $10,560,000 in quarters where they lobbied on issues related to immigrant detention and immigration reform."

For-profit companies exploit prison families.

Private prison corporations and their affiliates do everything they can to make a buck off people in prison -- and their families. According to The Nation's Liliana Segura, for example, a tech company called Global Tel*Link charges more than $1 per minute for families and friends to speak with their loved ones in prison. There is no free market, no competition to drive the price down.

If family or friends are unable to afford Global Tel*Link's prices, prisoners may run a higher risk of social isolation. It's a vicious circle, as studies show that social connections are key to a prisoner's rehabilitation process once he or she is released. FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a leader on this issue, has also pointed out that 2.7 million children in the United States have an incarcerated parent. Many of them suffer immeasurably when such unaffordable rates rob them of parental contact.

Global Tel* Link makes more than $500 million per year from exploiting these vulnerable people.

Young people are being mistreated and exploited. 

Worst of all, the for-profit system is having a terrible impact on our young people. A Huffington Post report entitled "Prisoners of Profit," paints a vivid picture of the widespread abuse and brutality -- including fatal medical neglect and sexual abuse. In the "kids for cash" scandal, business people actually paid judges to send young people to their often-brutal facilities, often for very minor infractions.

We must put an end to this shameful industry.

I have introduced legislation that will put an end to for-profit prisons. My legislation will bar federal, state, and local governments from contracting with private companies to manage prisons, jails, or detention facilities. Regulators will be directed to prevent companies from charging unreasonable fees for services like banking and telecommunications.

My legislation also takes steps to reduce our bloated inmate population. It reinstates the federal parole system, which was abolished in the 1980s, so that officials can individually assess each prisoner's risk and chance for rehabilitation. It ends the immigrant detention quota, which requires officials to hold a minimum of 34,000 people captive at any given time. And it would end the detention of immigrant families, many of whom are currently held in privately-owned facilities in Texas and Pennsylvania.

It's wrong to profit from the imprisonment of human beings and the suffering of their friends and families. It's time to end this morally repugnant practice, and along with it, the era of mass incarceration.

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Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006 after serving 16 years in the House of Representatives. Sanders ran to become the Democratic Party presidential nominee in both 2016 and 2020 and remains the longest-serving independent member of Congress in American history. Elected Mayor of Burlington, Vermont in 1981, he served four terms. Before his 1990 election as Vermont's at-large member in Congress, Sanders lectured at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and at Hamilton College in upstate New York.

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