Private Prisons Should Be Abolished — But They Aren’t the Real Problem

Anyone who examines privately owned US prisons has to come to the conclusion that they are abhorrent and must be eliminated. But they can also be low-hanging fruit used by opportunistic Democrats to ignore the much larger problem of — and solutions to — mass incarceration.

San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California in 2013. Zboralski / Wikimedia Commons

On March 9, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that New York State prisoners would be producing hand sanitizer, just as incarcerated people and outside activists alike began pressuring for the widespread release of prisoners due to COVID-19. The irony wasn’t subtle: prisoners risking their lives to produce hand sanitizer for people in the free world put in sharp relief the kind of exploitative labor that the incarcerated are subjected to, even after a Democratic primary cycle that focused intently on private prisons.

Last June, former presidential candidate Kamala Harris tweeted “Let’s be clear: private prisons are making money off the incarceration and suffering of human beings. One of my first acts of business as president will be to begin phasing out detention centers and private prisons.” Though other candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders had previously supported abolishing private prisons, it was most surprising coming from Harris, a former district attorney who supported criminalizing truant students, fought demands to release prisoners, and continued many of California’s tough-on-crime policies.

Many see the fight against private prisons as a potential win for anti-prison activists, a reflection of the ways in which criminal justice reform has become increasingly mainstream in the last decade. And private prisons are, of course, abhorrent. But the fight against private prisons can also be a cop-out, a way for Democratic candidates to pay lip service to supporting the rights of incarcerated people while implicitly supporting the status quo.

By emphasizing private prisons in policy proposals, campaign platforms, and public rhetoric, state and federally owned prisons are downplayed or even implicitly seen as a more ethical form of imprisonment. But only 8.2 percent of the United States’ massively bloated prison population is in privately owned prisons. And all prisons — even federally and state-owned prisons — exploit prisoners’ labor.

Private prisons are relatively easy to oppose. The stakes are seemingly clear when businesses and corporate interests financially benefit from the labor of incarcerated people as well as their continued incarceration. Private prisons evoke historical comparisons to convict leasing, in particular — a system that contracted incarcerated people to private companies in the US South in the early twentieth century, increasing profits for both the state government and private industry. Though convict leasing was abolished in the 1930s, it was quickly replaced by incarcerated labor in state-run facilities. Incarcerated people were not directly working for private industry, but their labor was (and is) still used on prison farms and in factories.

With such egregious examples of abusive private-prison practices, even politicians who once supported tough-on-crime policies like Kamala Harris can argue that private prisons are unethical without shifting their ideology about imprisonment.

And it’s not only politicians bringing attention to the private-prison industry, but popular culture. In Hulu’s Castle Rock (based on Stephen King’s work), the state prison is sold to a private company, which sets in motion much of the show’s action. In the CW’s Riverdale, Hiram Lodge builds a private prison in Riverdale (while destroying the low-income south side in the process). And in Orange Is the New Black, a private corporation “saves” the struggling prison in the fourth season, leading directly to a riot.

All for the good. But state prisons, which still employ incarcerated people as laborers, don’t operate much differently.

UNICOR (the federal government’s prison industries program) has been manufacturing goods with prison labor for eighty-five years, including military weaponry, computers, vehicles, office furniture, and prison supplies. UNICOR claims to focus on job training for prisoners rather than profit, though there is little evidence to support this claim beyond vague platitudes housed on their web page.

UNICOR primarily sells to government entities — but contracts with corporations like Nightingale, Humanscale, UVEX, and OEI to produce glasses, furniture, and computers at lower rates. In UNICOR’s “Bringing Jobs Home: Investing in America” marketing pamphlet, the program claims to “enhance your success and your bottom line” and reduce manufacturing costs. Though they ostensibly aim to rehabilitate incarcerated people, they sell their goods to industry on the basis of low labor costs.

At the state level, incarcerated people often are only allowed to produce goods for the benefit of government agencies. But even then, prisoners’ labor is hyperexploited, to the benefit of those agencies’ bottom lines.

In Texas, incarcerated people produce mattresses for dormitories at Texas Tech University, police uniforms, signage, and office furniture and materials. In Louisiana, incarcerated people at the Louisiana State Penitentiary harvest crops, raise cattle, and raise quarter horses — all sold on the private market to corporations — which benefits the state rather than the incarcerated laborers, who make minuscule wages. And in Pennsylvania (where prison farms are less common), most furniture used by the state government, the City of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia School District is produced by prison labor. Government seals, “Say No to Drugs” signs, and other products that help maintain the carcerality of the city are produced by incarcerated people themselves.

So Harris, Warren, Sanders, and many of the other 2020 democratic presidential candidates are right. Private prisons should be abolished. But if the problem is the profit — institutions unjustly benefiting from the labor of incarcerated people — the fight against private prisons is only a beginning. Political figures and others serious about fighting injustice must engage with the profit motives of federally and state-funded prisons as well, and seriously consider the abolition of all prisons — as they are all for profit.