Last week the Justice Department announced plans to phase out its use of privately run prisons and we cheered. Private prisons, after all, are the devil. The industry profits from incarcerating people; that profit motive has led the industry to lobby state legislatures to pass laws that keep prison beds full–disproportionately with black and brown people. But the real issue isn’t private prisons. Mass incarceration would not end if they disappeared, nor would black and brown communities be made whole. The real issue is that black and brown people are unnecessary in the eyes of corporate America. The economy of today is getting along just fine without the incarcerated and until that changes mass incarceration will remain a viable option, with or without private prisons.
The United States has more prisoners than any country on planet Earth. But from the corporate perspective, if it ain’t broke why fix it? With 2.3 million behind bars, the stock market hit a record high last month. With over 2 million locked up, banks, airlines and other sectors are experiencing record profits. Why do they need the incarcerated? In the current scheme of things those 2 million bodies are considered “extra” to much of the business sector. While racism created the motive for and indifference to mass incarceration, economics keeps the system viable. This was not always true. Dr. Andrew Hacker points out that after World War II some one million black women left domestic service and went to work outside of the home. The nation needed those 1 million black women, incarcerating them was not an option. In a world where phone apps are often the basis of wealth, the calculation as to who is expendable has changed dramatically.
Some 2.3 million are behind bars but private prisons only represent about 10% of that population, as Professor Dan Berger notes. Mass incarceration would not cease if all private prisons folded. Ending the War on Drugs would not totally fix the problem, either. Drug offenses account for roughly half of the 211,000 federal prisoners in the US but most individuals are actually incarcerated on the state level, where almost 1.4 million are imprisoned. Of that number, drug offenders make up only 212,000. The drug war is certainly a major component to mass incarceration but there is something much deeper at work. Berger correctly asserts that mass incarceration began in the 1970’s as a direct response to the black freedom struggle of the 1960’s. So then racism is certainly the genesis of this monster. Yet it continues to live because the nation at large simply cannot find a need for 2.3 million of its citizens.
If corporate America can’t find use for our brothers and sisters behind bars, we must create a need for them. Developing strong, vibrant businesses in our community must be a priority. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that in 2015 there were roughly 1.8 million unemployed blacks in America seeking work. A simple FactFinder search will tell you that there are actually over 2 million black-owned businesses in the country. That means that if each firm simply hired one black person, black unemployment would be eradicated and we could immediately absorb much of the population coming out of prison. The only way those businesses can hire is if the demand for their products and services increases, and that only happens if we seek them out and patronize them. Our daily purchases can help create a need for those behind bars or continue to enrich others who are indifferent to their plight. The fate of the incarcerated–future and present–is not dependent on whether private prisons exist. That decision belongs to us.
**No one can oppress you unless you give them the money to do it**