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Everything Americans Need To Know About The Prison Industrial Complex

Updated June 23, 2017 35.8k views12 items

You've heard the term, but what is the prison industrial complex? This deceptively dry name describes the for-profit privatization of American correctional facilities. The vast majority of states rely on private prisons to accommodate surging prison populations, and it's a lucrative business. The privatization of the prison system in America is often presented as a noble stroke of capitalism that lightens the burden of state and federal governments. But in reality, private prisons have a monetary interest in keeping people locked up, which has in turn influenced the justice system to morally objectionable ends.

Facts about the prison industrial complex paint a grim view of prisons and their sometimes horrific practices. As the numbers of incarcerated individuals continue to skyrocket in the U.S., private prisons are putting money in the pockets of corporations, and inmates are being subjected to conditions designed to cut corners and boost profits. There are lots of things Americans don't know about the prison industrial complex, but it's time to question whether turning a blind eye is really the best way to achieve justice.

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  • Inmates In Private Prisons Receive Less Than $1 An Hour For Their Labor

    Photo: Indiana Public Media / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    Inmates in state penitentiaries generally receive minimum wage for their labor, with the exception of Colorado, which pays just under $2 an hour. Private prisons, however, are a different story. With 1.5 million federal inmates currently holding jobs, those in private facilities work for as little as 8 cents a day, and some are not paid at all. The highest current private prison wage is offered by a CCA facility in Tennessee: 50 cents an hour.

  • Mandatory Minimums And Non-Violent Offenders Maintain The Industry

    Photo: DoD News Photos / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    In order for a profitable private prison industry to exist, there needs to be an ever-growing prison population and a government that's ill-equipped to handle it. Since the '90s, this has increasingly been the case in America. The U.S. locks up non-violent offenders for extraordinarily long periods of time; drug offenders, for instance, can face a five-year sentence for possessing a few grams of crack. That sentence jumps to 20 years if there's intent to distribute.

    In 2012, the ACLU reported that 3,278 prisoners were serving life sentences for non-violent crimes.

  • Corners Are Cut To Preserve The Bottom Line

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Private prisons are a lucrative business. Companies like CCA and GEO Group generate between $2,771 and $3,366 in profit per prisoner, and they do this by keeping costs low. Maintaining low overhead in a prison comes with some risks; corners are frequently cut by hiring unqualified staff with reduced training, and having a low standard for health care and maintenance. Not surprisingly, nearly all private prison corporations have been sued by aggrieved inmates.

  • Private Prisons Have Minimum Occupancy Requirements

    Photo: dnak / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    CCA, the largest private prison corporation in the world, attempted to buy correctional facilities in 48 states in 2012. Their pitch was that they would buy and operate the prisons in exchange for a 20-year contract and a guaranteed 90% occupancy. If the states were unable to provide that many prisoners, they would face a "low-crime tax," under which they would be on the hook for unused cells.

    The deals were declined, but minimum occupancies and low-crime taxes are very much the norm with private prisons; 65% of all current private prison contracts include minimum occupancy clauses. The industry standard for minimum occupancy is 90%, but there are several for-profit prisons that demand a full 100%.