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Banning Private Prisons—and Prisoner Exploitation

Elizabeth Warren’s newest plan goes beyond limiting the private role in mass incarceration, and seeks to prevent corporate abuse of vulnerable inmates

The two largest private prison companies, GEO Group and CoreCivic, have seen business swell due to increased ICE detention of immigrants. (Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP Photo)

The two largest private prison companies, GEO Group and CoreCivic, have seen business swell due to increased ICE detention of immigrants. (Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP Photo)

Last Friday, Senator Elizabeth Warren vowed as president to terminate all federal private prison contracts, and to pressure local and state governments to do the same. “The government has a basic responsibility to keep the people in its care safe—not to use their punishment as an opportunity for profit,” she wrote in a Medium post.

Warren’s plan also promises to regulate private companies’ services in prisons and eliminate service fees for prisoners using basic services like phone calls, bank transfers, and health care. This goes beyond what has become an increasingly common call for abolishing private prison management, and attacks the routine exploitation of disproportionately poor inmates and their families.

Senator Bernie Sanders introduced the Justice Is Not for Sale Act back in 2015. In a plan not too divergent from Warren’s, the Sanders bill would have banned private prisons and increased oversight of private services operating in prisons. Other Democratic candidates, including Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris, have also previously called for an end to private prisons. One day after the release of Warren’s plan, even the moderate Joe Biden punctuated a speech at the South Carolina Democratic Convention with this line: “No more mandatory minimums, period. End private prisons.”

Biden’s call to end private prisons comes a few years after the Obama administration he served in attempted to do something similar, though much more cautiously. In 2016, after the Justice Department published a damning report finding that private prisons are both less safe and more expensive than publicly run alternatives, Obama announced a plan to gradually end private prison contracts with the federal government.

But as most prisoners incarcerated in the U.S. are in state prisons or county jails, the Obama plan would not have affected the majority of prisoners across the country—and also would not have affected immigrants held in private detention facilities, a growth center for the industry. In order to extend the ban on private prisons to states and localities, Warren’s administration would withhold federal public-safety funds from those governments until they cooperate. Her proposal would also affect detention centers run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The Trump administration reversed the Obama administration’s policy soon after the inauguration, and since then, the two largest private prison companies, GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America), have seen business swell due to increased ICE detention of immigrants. These two companies make up almost a duopoly within the private prison system, and received the bulk of the $807 million paid by ICE to private prison corporations in fiscal year 2018. More than 50,000 undocumented immigrants, a record high, are currently being held in detention by ICE; the majority are in private facilities. Ending these contracts would suggest not only a new policy toward criminal justice, but a new immigration policy.

Beyond eliminating private prisons, Warren is also looking to increase regulation of for-profit services that operate in prisons and jails across the board, which could have immediate, material effects on inmate life.

The vast majority of those who enter the prison system are already extremely poor; a 2015 report by the Prison Policy Institute found that the median income of individuals pre-incarceration was $19,185, or 41 percent less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages. Incarceration only further destroys inmate finances, as prisoners are still on the hook for debt, may be forced to work for free, and, as Warren noted in her post, are often treated by companies as “captive profit centers.”

What she means by this pithy and all-too-accurate phrase is that prisons and jails, even those run by CoreCivic and GEO Group, tend to outsource phone, food, and health-care services to separate private companies, often with disastrous consequences for inmates who have no choice but to use these services. Phone calls from prison can cost more than $1 per minute. Even worse, dominant prison phone companies Global Tel Link and Securus have also moved into the video business. Some facilities, mostly jails, have eliminated in-person visitation in favor of pricy and impersonal videoconferencing. Many prisoners and families report alienation from not being able to see their loved ones in the flesh.

After a study found that inmates are more than six times as likely as the average American to contract a foodborne illness, The Atlantic called the state of prison food “a hidden public-health crisis.” Without competition, commissaries jack up food prices. And numerous inmates have died after having been denied access to health care and medication—even if they can afford the co-pay.

Practically anything someone might want to do inside a prison is taxed, as private companies prey on the incarcerated. Prisoners may be the only group in America who must pay each time they send an email. Last year, Pennsylvania temporarily banned book donations to prisoners in favor of e-readers, which forced exorbitant payments for each book. Securus’s electronic money transfers charge $6.95 for a $50 transaction. Standardized care packages purchased through prison commissary giant Keefe cost far more than the same products on the outside.

Warren pledged greater oversight and regulation of these companies: not an outright end of private companies providing these services, but a start. Most importantly, while these services would still operate on the taxpayer dime, prisoners themselves—and their families—wouldn’t pay the astronomical fees necessary to make a phone call, or for other services deemed essential. Warren would also eliminate companies charging for re-entry services, like probation—fees that can turn into debts which can follow a returning citizen for the rest of their lives.

Obama’s plan to eliminate the use of federal private prisons was a small step in the overall march to more humane prisons and an end to mass incarceration, but the Warren plan, as well as other candidate plans, is decidedly more urgent—and it seems that we’re getting close to a consensus on private prisons among the front-runners of the Democratic primary. What’s perhaps most important is not merely that calls toward ending for-profit imprisonment are becoming the norm, but that these proposals are a necessary step to addressing the atrocities that occur in public prisons too, where inmate life is also cruel.

What’s the outlook of such a plan? After Warren published her Medium post, stock in CoreCivic and GEO Group dropped.

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Kalena Thomhave

Kalena Thomhave is a writing fellow at the Prospect.

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