You are viewing the NationofChange archives. For the latest news and actions, visit the new
Get Email Updates | Log In | Register

Christopher Petrella
NationofChange / Op-Ed
Published: Tuesday 22 November 2011
Since 1984 the number of private corrections facilities has burgeoned by 4000%.

The Public in Republican: The Privatization of Prisons and Universities

Article image

In 1944 the great Hun­gar­ian po­lit­i­cal econ­o­mist Karl Polanyi penned The Great Trans­for­ma­tion in which he vi­tu­per­ated con­ser­v­a­tives for pri­va­tiz­ing com­mon prop­erty re­sources. He writes, for ex­am­ple, that “allow[ing] the mar­ket mech­a­nism to be the sole di­rec­tor of the fate of human be­ings” will “re­sult in the de­mo­li­tion of so­ci­ety.”

Forty years later, in 1984, I was born.

I was born in 1984 and since the year of my birth the num­ber of human bod­ies in the United States lan­guish­ing under some form of state sur­veil­lance has bal­looned by nearly 400% de­spite a U.S. pop­u­la­tion ris­ing ten times as slowly.

I was born in 1984 and since the year of my birth the num­ber of pri­vate cor­rec­tions fa­cil­i­ties has bur­geoned by 4000%. I was born in 1984 and since the year of my birth the num­ber of black men in prison has grown by 800%; 73% of peo­ple of color in­car­cer­ated since 1984 are non-vi­o­lent, drug-re­lated of­fend­ers.

I was born in 1984 and since the year of my birth the num­ber of black men in col­lege has with­ered by al­most 50%. Today, there are some 820,000 black men in cells, but only 270,000 in dorms.

I was born in 1984, the year that in­cum­bent Pres­i­dent Ronald Rea­gan de­feated Wal­ter Mon­dale by nearly 18% in the na­tional pop­u­lar vote. No can­di­date since 1984 has man­aged to equal or sur­pass Rea­gan's elec­toral gulf. Per­haps we should re­peal “right on red” laws?

I was born in Oc­to­ber of 1984 and dur­ing that month a Re­pub­li­can con­trolled Sen­ate under the lead­er­ship of George H.W. Bush, Howard Baker, and Strom Thur­mond passed leg­is­la­tion al­low­ing fed­eral agen­cies to ex­per­i­ment with pri­va­tized cor­rec­tions. Later that year the INS struck a deal with CCA, the Cor­rec­tions Cor­po­ra­tion of Amer­ica, on whose Board of Di­rec­tors Thur­good Mar­shall Jr. cur­rently sits.

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween the INS—now Cit­i­zen­ship and Im­mi­gra­tion Ser­vices—and the CCA is crit­i­cal to con­sider be­cause it demon­strates the cir­cuitous path­ways be­tween race, cit­i­zen­ship, con­tain­ment, and prof­itabil­ity. I don’t think it’s par­tic­u­larly co­in­ci­den­tal that the INS –a state agency that pri­mar­ily deals with bod­ies of color—was the first gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion to con­tract with pri­vate prison com­pa­nies. Test­ing pri­va­ti­za­tion on the most vul­ner­a­ble and po­lit­i­cally dis­en­fran­chised groups al­lowed the pri­vate prison in­dus­try to ex­ter­nal­ize costs with­out fac­ing “le­git­i­mate” pub­lic back­lash. The mes­sage from the U.S. cor­po­rate state is crys­talline: bod­ies of color are not, nor have ever been, wor­thy of tax­payer sup­ported pub­lic in­vest­ment. In the eyes of the U.S. cor­po­rate state peo­ple are color aren’t part of the “com­mons,” an omis­sion that ren­ders peo­ple of color ex­clud­able from pub­lic ap­pro­pri­a­tions. In­stead, bod­ies of color con­tinue to be seen al­most ex­clu­sively as a source of profit ex­trac­tion. Bod­ies of color are in­car­cer­ated at sig­nif­i­cantly higher rates in pri­vate fa­cil­i­ties than in pub­licly op­er­ated in­sti­tu­tions.

And the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for pri­va­tiz­ing pun­ish­ment? Con­ser­v­a­tives say that pri­va­ti­za­tion is ef­fi­cient. This claim is unas­sail­ably false. The Ari­zona De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions re­ported in its 2010 “Op­er­at­ing Per Capita Cost Re­port” that in­mates in pri­vate pris­ons can cost as much as $1,600 more per year. And more gen­er­ally, the pri­va­ti­za­tion of pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions and pro­grams, a pol­icy that has been pur­sued ag­gres­sively since the early 1980s, is pred­i­cated on the as­sump­tion that ex­tend­ing the reach of mar­kets will pro­mote eco­nomic growth and will cut costs. Again, this claim is unim­peach­ably false. In 2003 the World Com­mis­sion on the So­cial Di­men­sion of Glob­al­iza­tion’s is­sued a re­port en­ti­tled “A Fair Glob­al­iza­tion” whose au­thors found that the pri­mary achieve­ment of the pri­va­ti­za­tion of pub­lic as­sets, in­sti­tu­tions, and pro­grams since the early 1980s has been re­dis­trib­u­tive, not gen­er­a­tive. Rea­gan’s chief jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the pri­va­ti­za­tion of myr­iad pub­lic sec­tor jobs was, in his words, “to stim­u­late cap­i­tal ac­cu­mu­la­tion.” But such rhetoric strays far afield from re­al­ity. Through­out the 1960s ag­gre­gate global growth rates stood at 3.5% and dur­ing the 1970’s they dipped to 2.4%. But from 1980-2003 the world econ­omy has only grown by a rate of 1.25% an­nu­ally. So pri­va­ti­za­tion didn’t ap­pear very gen­er­a­tive, but it did re­dis­trib­ute wealth up­ward. In late Oc­to­ber the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice (CBO) re­ported, for in­stance, that the real after tax house­hold in­come of the 1% grew by 265% since 1979, whereas the poor­est 20% of house­holds saw their in­comes in­crease by a pal­try 18%.

And as the bat­tle over pri­va­ti­za­tion con­tin­ues, the stakes grow ever higher. Just last month the River­side, Cal­i­for­nia County Board of Su­per­vi­sors ap­proved a mea­sure that au­tho­rizes charg­ing pris­on­ers $142.42 per day of their prison stay in an ef­fort to save the county up to $5 mil­lion dol­lars per year. The Board’s de­ci­sion ob­vi­ously comes amidst a bud­getary cri­sis of un­prece­dented pro­por­tions as the state of Cal­i­for­nia at­tempts to “pri­va­tize” its way out of last year’s $9.6 bil­lion deficit. Ge­o­g­ra­pher David Har­vey sug­gests that dur­ing mo­ments of cri­sis “ac­cu­mu­la­tion by dis­pos­ses­sion” is one strat­egy the state im­ple­ments to sta­bi­lize the econ­omy. Today, “ac­cu­mu­la­tion by dis­pos­ses­sion” works by dis­pos­sess­ing cit­i­zens of their as­sets (and rights) through two pri­mary strate­gies: 1) per­sonal in­debt­ed­ness (think av­er­age stu­dent debt loads of $24k / struc­tural read­just­ment poli­cies on the per­sonal level) and 2) ex­ter­nal­iz­ing risk and cost from the cor­po­rate state to the cit­i­zenry.

The lat­est ex­am­ple of “ex­ter­nal­iz­ing risk” can be seen in River­side County, Cal­i­for­nia where the Board of Ad­min­is­tra­tors plans to enact a fee-for-ser­vice plan for “crim­i­nals,” or as the state now con­ceives of them, “con­sumers.” Gov­er­nor Brown claims that pay-to-stay pro­grams will re­duce the state’s cor­rec­tions ex­pen­di­tures and there­fore free up ad­di­tional out­lays for pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion. But Brown’s com­ments come at a time when the Re­gents at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia have pro­posed an 81% tu­ition hike over the next four years. Mean­while, Cal­i­for­nia's adult prison pop­u­la­tion has grown from about 97,000 in 1990 to nearly 161,000 today, while the cost of in­car­cer­a­tion dur­ing has risen from $20,562 per in­mate to $47,101. The cor­rec­tions de­part­ment now draws $9.8 bil­lion from the state's gen­eral fund, or 11.4% of this year's spend­ing plan. This is more than the state spends on the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia and Cal­i­for­nia State Uni­ver­sity sys­tems com­bined. Over eigh­teen states, in fact, spend more on cor­rec­tions than pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion.

And River­side County of­fi­cials jus­tify their nascent pay-to-stay pro­gram by con­tend­ing that new rev­enue from in­mates could save low to mid-wage county jobs that would oth­er­wise be on the chop­ping block. But by now we know that this rhetor­i­cal strat­egy is an­cient: pit pris­on­ers against the class from which they come. In Pun­ish­ing the Poor (2009) U.C. Berke­ley so­ci­ol­o­gist Loic Wac­quant re­ports that 60% of those cur­rently in­car­cer­ated were at the time of ar­rest liv­ing at or below 50% of the poverty line. And ac­cord­ing a re­cent re­port is­sued by the U.S. Cen­sus Bu­reau just two weeks ago nearly 20.5 mil­lion Amer­i­cans, or 7% of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion, live at or below 50% of the poverty line.

But forc­ing pris­on­ers to pay for their con­tain­ment through mea­sures of pri­va­ti­za­tion has never re­ally been about stim­u­lat­ing the econ­omy, has it? At the same time the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has rec­om­mended a dra­matic "spend­ing freeze" on any and all pro­jects un­re­lated to em­pire build­ing, it has sur­rep­ti­tious in­creased the fed­eral bud­get for prison ex­pen­di­tures. Pres­i­dent Obama's com­bined bud­get re­quests for fis­cal years 2011 and 2012 in­clude a 10% in­crease in fund­ing for the Fed­eral Bu­reau of Pris­ons, bring­ing the total to more than $6.8 bil­lion. The Left has been pusil­lan­i­mously silent.

The strat­egy from the top has been con­sis­tent: Di­vide, con­quer, shift costs, and re­peat.

And so both prison abo­li­tion­ists and “Oc­cupy” Wall Street ac­tivists must decry the cor­po­rate cap­i­tal­ist carceral class that preaches mar­ket but prac­tices mo­nop­oly (CCA over­sees 62% of total num­ber of in­mates in pri­vate pris­ons), that pri­va­tizes profit while so­cial­iz­ing debt. To­gether, both ac­tivist com­mu­ni­ties must strive to build, in the words of Dr. King, “a per­son ori­ented so­ci­ety over a thing ori­ented so­ci­ety.” We de­mand a world where pris­on­ers aren’t as­sumed to be chat­tel and work­ers aren’t as­sumed to be com­modi­ties; we de­mand a world where pris­on­ers aren’t degrad­able and work­ers aren’t dis­pens­able.

Author pic
ABOUT Christopher Petrella

Christopher Petrella is a NationofChange contributing author and a doctoral candidate in African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He writes on the contradictions of modernity and teaches at San Quentin State Prison. His work has appeared in such publications as Monthly Review, Truthout, Axis of Logic, NationofChange, and The Real Cost of Prisons. Christopher also holds degrees from Bates College and Harvard University.



I would just like to say to

I would just like to say to Mr. Petrella, you have wisdom far beyond your years.

In 1983 I told a friend of

In 1983 I told a friend of mine that there would be a strong movement to privatize prisons. That they would make putting people in jail a money making venture for some. I told him that the system as it was, was not meant to include everyone. That was obvious by how much money the government was willing to spend to put people in jail versus how much it would spend to educate you. It function is clearly to put people of color in jail, I will gladly challenge anyone who would want to dispute that

I remember reading (a few

I remember reading (a few administrations back) that the federal government had cut $19 million (or billion?) from the budget for building new colleges. Coincidentally, they had just allocated that very same amount toward the building of new prisons. I thought, so this is what they've got planned for our youth.Profit Prisons Room-for-Rent is designed to create debt, like the money system itself. Slave labor has always been a favorite preoccupation with the wealthy. Do the prison owners belong in their jails?

Thank you. Knowledge is

Thank you. Knowledge is power. You empower us. We are the 99%. We have already won. Let's close the deal and close privatized prison, as well as demanding that our schools NOT BE PRISON PREP but return to COLLEGE PREP. And let's make education a RIGHT, NOT A PRIVILEGE.

Capitalism does not work in

Capitalism does not work in the areas of corrections and health care, period!

It's hard to miss.

It's hard to miss. Corporations like to increase their volume. CCA is no exception and it will do everything to show that it is making more money this year than last year. What better way to tweak the next balance sheet than to lobby vigorously, buy judges and law inforcement folks and really support the obscene expansion of Homeland Security subsidies to local law enforcement. Defense attorneys like the program too. In a local courtroom I recently observed a noted defense attorney representing 3 separate clients in separate criminal proceedings. These were middleclass folks who could ill afford his $10,000 fee. He made $30,000 in 2 hours. No wonder our country is a leader among other "civilized" countries in incarceration of its citizens. Privatization does, indeed create high paying jobs.

The people running things,

The people running things, including Obama (whatever happened to that guy?) and the class war they are waging on poor people remind me of a phrase I once read while doing research on the Third Reich and their murdering of the old, mentally incapable, and people deemed to have "deviant tendencies" (e.g., juvenile delinquency): "Life undeserving of life."

We've seen this since the

We've seen this since the privatization thing started in the 80s. The people advocating to "privatize" aren't really advocating private investment, rather, they are really the thing they hate--socialist--because their wealth is derived from tax dollars. Not only that, but it cost more than it would if it were state/federal owned.

Ya, and if those same people

Ya, and if those same people were making 150 dollars a day, perhaps they wouldn't have chosen crime as a career. What are they thinking? Most Americans don't even make 150 dollars a day.

Nothing like feeding the Drug

Nothing like feeding the Drug War by hook or by crook. Zeig Heil America, Zeig Heil.

Only one problem with this statement, the NAZIs were a better class of people.

It is not like inmates are rich. Those are totally unsustainable options and everyone knows it. The only people that can afford $150 a day for prison costs are white collar criminals like the Board of Supervisors in Riverside and their politically connected cronies.

It's not widely known but

It's not widely known but Barbara Bush is a major stockholder in CCA. This info came out when she stated, during the Katrina debacle that her little Georgie caused, that the people who were evacuated to the Huston Astrodome were probably better off then where they were living before the storm.

In the past privatized

In the past privatized prisons failed. If you don't learn from history you are bound to repeat the same mistakes.

Police The police are thugs

The police are thugs hired by the rich to enforce the whims of the rich, protect the rich, and put the middle/poor classes in body bags.

The rich are allowed to break the law without consequence far more often than not, and directly profit from the private jail slave labor camps that are bankrupting local government with their 500% markups.

Use the keywords “police brutality” in Google search, or on YouTube to see what I mean. Do you really think that they treat the rich and the non-rich the same?

Open your eyes.

It's very important to note

It's very important to note that if people in prison are doing the work then those jobs are taken away from people on the outside. These people, unable to work, then end up needing food stamps which cost everyone, they begin to feel inadequate and this leads to more crime, more people in prison and this becomes a self-replicating disaster for the poor. We can see this happening.

Absolutely! The rich sit in

Absolutely! The rich sit in their Ivory Towers as they look down upon the Occupy Wall Street protests and smiling as their police assault peaceful protests.

Great piece, Christopher. I

Great piece, Christopher. I commend you to my pal's latest post on her blog "United States v. Marijuana: Cynthia Johnston Reports From Inside America's Wrong-Headed War on Weed" - it's called: Dispatches from the Field: Women in Prison -- An American Growth Industry. So glad the two of you are getting the word out on this national travesty. Thanks!!

Comment with your Facebook account

Comment with your Disqus account

Top Stories

comments powered by Disqus

NationofChange works to educate, inform, and fight power with people, corruption with community.

If you would like to stay up to date with the best in independent, filter-free journalism, updates on upcoming events to attend, and more, enter your email below:

7 Compelling Reasons Why You Should Support NationofChange

Our readers often tell us why they’ve decided to step up and become supporters. Here are some of the top reasons people are giving.

1. You’re keeping independent journalism alive
The corporate owned media has proven that it can’t be trusted. In a media landscape wrought with spin and corruption, NationofChange stands in very scarce company.

2. You’re sticking it to the rich, powerful, and corrupt
When you have money in this country you can get away with damn near anything, and they do. NationofChange isn’t afraid to expose these criminals no matter how powerful they are.

3. Your donation is 100% tax-deductible
NationofChange is a 501(c)3 charity. People tend to assume that many other organizations are (most nonprofits are NOT) but it’s that 501(c)3 status is a bit more rare than you think.

Read the rest...