May 4, 2017
By Mollie March-Steinman

In addition to being a racist system that intentionally targets people of color through “broken-windows policing”, stop-and-frisk policies, and racial profiling, the prison industrial complex is also a highly calculated, profit-maximizing capitalist system.

Despite conservative rhetoric about reducing crime or limiting undocumented immigration, underlying policies do exactly the opposite, providing profit incentives to keep prisons and detention centers full. Though national crime rates were at an all time low in 2016, many incarceration facilities have occupancy requirements as high as 80-100%. Keeping prisons at high capacity means having more crime on the streets, requiring longer sentences for nonviolent offenses, and high recidivism rates due to inadequate preparation for reentry into society.

For every year an individual is imprisoned or detained in a private institution, the corporation managing the facility makes thousands of dollars. This is because state taxes must pay the private prison for each “bed”, or available spot in the facility, whether it is in use or not. States sign contracts with private prisons that can last as long as twenty years, and are contractually obligated to pay heavy fines if the prison population is below the occupancy requirement.

CoreCivic (previously Corrections Corporation of America) and GEO Group are two of the major entities profiting from mass incarceration. They lobby politicians to pass anti-immigrant, racist, and pro-police policies. As noted in the film 13th,  the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) writes most of this harmful legislation, but CoreCivic and GEO Group are the primary organizations lobbying for it to pass. According to a 2016 Huffington Post article, GEO Group helped fund the SuperPACs of Republican candidates during the 2016 primaries, including Trump’s. It is not a coincidence that CoreCivic and GEO Group saw their stocks skyrocket after Trump’s election, or that CoreCivic subsequently donated $250,000 towards the inauguration, according to Bloomberg Markets.

Private prison companies, like the ones mentioned above, also have federal contracts to manage detention centers. The criminalization of undocumented people was a strategic decision to ensure that for-profit detention centers remain at maximum capacity, similar to how the War on Drugs filled prisons with Black people. Though this may not be the stated intention of policymakers, it is important to understand that our prisons and detention centers are filled with low-income people of color, not the affluent Wall Street bankers who caused the 2008 recession.

Dan Baum, in a 2016 Harper’s article, recalls Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman telling him in 1994 that the “War on Drugs” was intended to vilify and criminalize the anti-war Left and Black Civil Rights activists. As described by CNN (LoBianco, 2016), Ehrlichman said, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities….We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” The criminalization of Black people for nonviolent drug offenses directly resulted in racist, for-profit mass incarceration.

In addition, U.S. foreign policy destabilizes vulnerable regions, which creates more undocumented refugees and immigrants. Our intense vetting process prevents most refugees from entering our country with required documentation. When desperate individuals enter undocumented, or overstay their visas, they are vulnerable to detention and deportation. Refugees are also more susceptible to pay gaps, wage theft, and poor living conditions. These factors, combined with a greater police presence in low-income areas, make these communities more likely to be targeted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

In 2016, ICE reported that three-quarters of detained immigrants are held in for-profit facilities. According to the ACLU, 7% and 18% of prisoners were held in private state and federal prisons, respectively, in 2015. The New York Times noted in 2013 that the annual cost of housing each inmate at Riker’s Island was $167,000. As inmates have to suffer terrible conditions, violence, sexual assault, and inadequate nutrition (Mother Jones, 2013), it is obvious that the $167,000 per inmate is largely used for profit, not for the rehabilitation and care of inmates.

Private prisons and detention centers maximize their profits in numerous ways. Prisoners and detained immigrants are forced to labor for free or next-to-nothing; if they strike, they are punished with solitary confinement. The comparison of mass incarceration to modern-day slavery is not an exaggeration.

Despite the magnitude of these injustices, it is our responsibility to end mass incarceration. We must continue to insist, every day, that the school-to-prison pipeline is destroyed, racist policing is abolished, and that capitalism’s violence will not stand. We must protect our immigrant neighbors from ICE banging on their doors like the Gestapo to break up their families. We must support incarcerated individuals’ efforts to resist violations of their human rights. Humans are not commodities, and the fight to affirm that reality did not end with the Civil War or 13th Amendment.


Mollie March-Steinman is currently self-designing an Economic Justice major at Chatham University. She is passionate about promoting peace and justice for all. Mollie is an intern with the NewPeople Editorial Collective.