In December, the University of California system announced it would divest from the prison-industrial complex by December 31st by dumping $30 million in stock it held in for-profit prison companies Corrections Corporation of America and The Geo Group. The decision came after months of pressure from student activists led by the Afrikan Black Coalition, which described the university’s move as “historic and momentous.”
The growing role of for-profit prisons and the rise of mass incarceration in the United States has become an increasingly controversial topic of late. Prison reform is a central concern of the Black Lives Matter movement and a key issue in the platform of the Bernie Sanders campaign. In recent months, President Obama has committed to fighting for racial justice and transforming the criminal justice system during the remainder of his presidency.
Growing Awareness of Prison Situation Leads to Public Outcry
The public outcry comes as more and more Americans learn about the staggering statistics of mass incarceration in the United States. According to a CNN report, the United States comprises only 5 percent of the world’s population but holds more than 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people, imprisoning more people than Russia or China. The national prison population has doubled since the 1990s — there are now roughly 1.6 million Americans serving time in federal and state prisons. That number does not include those serving shorter sentences in county jails.
This growth is due in no small part to the rise of private for-profit prisons, which saw a 1600 percent increase in the number of inmates they housed between 1990 and 2009. It is estimated that the private prison industry earns $5 billion a year and houses approximately 20 percent of federal inmates and 7 percent of state inmates. Private prison corporations like Corrections Corporation of America and The Geo Group are now part of one of the most powerful lobbyist groups in Washington.
Race Seen as a factor in disproportionate inmate populations
Over 70 percent of inmates serving time in federal prisons are there for nonviolent offenses, primarily because of the War on Drugs, and the incarceration rates for minorities are disproportionately high. A recent article in The Atlantic notes:
“Among those arrested for violent crimes, the proportion who are African-American men has changed little over the past twenty years. Among those arrested for drug crimes, the proportion who are African-American men has tripled. Although the prevalence of illegal drug use among white men is approximately the same as that among black men, black men are five times as likely to be arrested for a drug offense. As a result, about half the inmates in the United States are African-American. One out of every fourteen black men is now in prison or jail. One out of every four black men is likely to be imprisoned at some point during his lifetime.”
It bears repeating that the prevalence of drug use is approximately the same across racial lines, yet the conviction rates and sentencing within the criminal justice system suggest significant differences in the way white suspects and suspects of color are processed. Not only are suspects of color more likely to be convicted, they are also more liable to receive longer sentences. Perhaps the most disturbing statistic related to the racial demographics of our incarcerated population is that on average 1 in 3 black males will go to prison at some point in their life.
There is hope that things are moving in the right direction
Our prison system is a heartbreaking disgrace, and nobody should be profiting from it. The Obama Administration has taken some steps to help move us in the right direction, such as passing the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing ratio for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1, and granting early release to some non-violent drug offenders in federal prisons. But there is still a long way to go, and real reform will require a concerted effort by a broad coalition of activists.
Hopefully, Black Lives Matter and other like-minded groups and their supporters will be able to apply enough pressure to see some serious change. What the Afrikan Black Coalition achieved at the University of California offers hope that as the discussion moves forward at least some people will be willing to listen. And the for-profit prison industry might already be feeling some pressure on their bottom line. According to CNN, shares of both The Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America stock have performed badly this year, falling 29 percent and 24 percent respectively.
Featured Image courtesy of Pixabay.
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