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.
The world's first private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America, was started by Thomas Beasley, Doctor R. Crants, and T. Don Hutto in 1983. By 1986, CCA was a publicly traded company. It sold the idea of more efficient prisons requiring less staff, and championed the notion of a decreased burden on American taxpayers.
Their pitch was largely successful, and a stiffening of drug laws in the 1990s meant more prisoners - and more profits for CCA and its competitors. Between 1990 and 2009, the number of inmates in private facilities increased by a whopping 1600 percent.
Historically, the United States has incarcerated more people than any other country, so the emergence of private prisons is not surprising considering the demand. Though America represents roughly 5% of the world's population, it's home to 25% of the world's incarcerated inmates. There are currently 2.3 million people in either state or federal prison, and the U.S. has more correctional facilities than it does colleges.
Private prisons are currently home to 20% of the federal prison population, a figure that doubled between 2000 and 2010. They also hold 7% of state prisoners, and have recently expanded to include immigration detention centers as a source of profit.
Incarceration numbers show no signs of slowing down. The federal prison population has risen by 27% since 2003, and government facilities are routinely overcrowded. Federal correctional facilities are projected to be 55% over capacity by 2023.
Thirty-seven states allow the contracting of prison labor by private corporations. Companies like IBM, Boeing, Microsoft, AT&T, and Target all use prison labor to pad their bottom lines.
In 2015, it was estimated that federal prisoners helped produce $472 million in net revenue for private corporations. Low wages and no workplace protections have led some to describe the exploitive nature of prison labor as modern-day slavery.