On Thursday 18th of August 2016 the US Department of Justice made a hugely significant announcement that they are planning to end the use of private prisons after a report found that private prisons are less safe and provide inferior correctional services than government run facilities.
The huge growth in the US prison population, the widespread use of private prisons in the US and the use of prisoners as cheap labour is a phenomenon commonly referred to as the Prison Industrial Complex. This describes the situation where private companies that profit from running prisons and exploiting prisoners as cheap labour lobby for ever harsher laws in order to boost the prisoner population and their own profit margins.
Civil rights campaigners and hip-hop artists have been complaining about the Prison Industrial Complex for years, noting how non-white people are far more likely to be imprisoned for non-violent offences like drug possession.
When it comes to private prisons the conflicts of interest are absolutely obvious. Government operated prison services have an interest in reducing prisoner numbers through correctional services like education, apprenticeships, anger management courses etc because a lower prison population means either lower taxes, or tax revenues that can be spent on other valuable services like education or infrastructure. Private prisons have an interest in keeping prisoner populations as high as possible in order to boost their profitability, meaning that any efforts to rehabilitate prisoners and reduce the chances of re-offending are utterly counter-productive.
The obvious scope for corruption was highlighted by the appalling 2008 "kids for cash" scandal where two Pennsylvania judges were caught taking bribes from the owner of a private youth detention company in return for sentencing kids for utterly trivial offences like mocking a teacher on MySpace and trespassing in a vacant building!
Another scandal broke in 2016 when an undercover reporter from Mother Jones wrote a damning expose on the private prison business. This was followed soon after by the damning inspector General's report into the private prison business.
The US Senator Bernie Sanders has campaigned against private prisons and the Prison Industrial Complex for decades. Here's his response to the announcement that private prisons are to be phased out.
"It is an international embarrassment that we put more people behind bars than any other country on earth. Due in large part to private prisons, incarceration has been a source of major profits to private corporations. Study after study after study has shown private prisons are not cheaper, they are not safer, and they do not provide better outcomes for either the prisoners or the state.
We have got to end the private prison racket in America as quickly as possible. Our focus should be on keeping people out of jail and making sure they stay out when they are released. This means funding jobs and education not more jails and incarceration."The the announcement that the US Department of Justice is planning to let all of their private prison contracts expire over the next five years resulted in an immediate slump in the stock values of private prison companies like GEO.
Even though the evidence against the private prison industry has been compelling, the announcement of the phase-out of private prisons in the US is still surprising because of the predictable freefall in private prison stocks. It's clear that taking away their opportunity to get rich on the back of the US taxpayer, and by exploiting prisoners as free labour is going to make a lot of rich and powerful people very angry indeed.
It's also surprising because the obvious insanity of private for-profit prisons in the US has long been seen as one of the factors that makes the radically right-wing US version of capitalism so much worse than the more social democratic versions of capitalism.
The irony for British people is that we'll no longer be able to high-horse about American capitalism being so much more rabid than our own version because our governments have imitated the US system by introducing a load of private prisons and detention centres in the UK, and they've also been allowing private companies to undercut the legitimate employment market by taking advantage of the UK prison population as a cheap source of labour.
Instead of getting angry about their lost opportunity to profiteer out of the US justice system, these companies could consider shifting their attention to the ongoing Tory marketisation of the UK justice system.
The Tories are creating huge profiteering opportunities by carving up and privatising all elements of the UK justice system. They're not just intent on building more and more privately operated prisons and detention centres and allowing private companies to use prisoners as cheap labour, they've also been busy trying to privatise front line police services (Theresa May is a big advocate of police privatisation), court facilities and services, electronic tagging (subject to a massive £180 million tagging fraud by G4S and Serco), and probation services. They've also been trying to reform legal aid in order to drive smaller specialist practices out of business and hand a bigger market share to multinational behemoths like Serco, G4S and Capita.
The conflicts of interest are absolutely obvious when the privatised police unit that makes the arrest, the forensic science unit, the legal aid lawyer, the courtroom facilities and services, and the private prison are all operated by the same small cabal of corporations, then upon release the probation officer and the electronic tagging company are run by the same corporations too.
If a rare display of evidence based policy making drives the private prison profiteers out of the US justice system, they can be assured that the Tories will welcome them with open arms to help them with their project to turn the UK justice system into a conflict of interest riddled free-for-all for corporate profiteers.
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