Article by Joe Rein | Photography by Kristina McComas | Owl Staff
The United States of America is commonly referred to as the land of the free and the home of the brave. But if that statement holds true, why does the United States have the largest number of people residing in prisons worldwide?
Crime rates in the U.S. are similar to those of many other developed countries in the world according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. However, the difference between our imprisonment rates is vast.
The United States Census Bureau determined that the U.S. only accounts for 5% of the world’s entire population, yet the International Crime Victims Survey states that 25% of people imprisoned around the world are in American prisons.
In 1971, Former U.S. President Richard Nixon began the War on Drugs, declaring drug abuse to be public enemy number one. Efforts were put towards forming the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in 1973.
The DEA began to crack down on drug related crime, including abuse, possession, smuggling and dealing of any illegal substance in the United States. Overcrowding and rising costs became problems for local, state and federal prisons because of new inmates that were
arrested for illegal drug possession, so they turned to for profit prisons to ease the burden of overcrowding.
Private prisons differ from government run prisons in that they are for-profit facilities operated by a third party. They are contracted by a government agency to house the inmates that publicly funded prisons do not have the space for.
The private prison industry began with the founding of the Corrections Corporation of America in 1983. During the War on Drugs, the private prison industry thrived due to the new influx of inmates, and still do to this day, reaching a national peak of 137,220 inmates in 2012.
According to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy center based in Washington D.C., the number of people incarcerated for drug crimes has increased 1000% since 1980, growing from 41,000 people to around 488,400 people. There are more people incarcerated for drug related crimes today then there were for crimes of any kind in 1980.
This growth, however, is not equal within all communities in the U.S. The Sentencing Project states that out of all white men born in the year 2001, only one in seventeen is likely to be held in prison. One in every six Latino men born in 2001 are likely to be held in prison. For African American men born the same year, the likelihood is one in every three.
Private prison organizations spend millions of dollars lobbying Congress for judges to set higher bail amounts for inmates. Of today’s U.S. prison population, 67% are nonwhite inmates. Aside from any racial implications, the occupancy rates private prisons require could be responsible for the increased incarceration numbers.
According to In the Public Interest, a public services research and policy group based in Washington D.C., the majority of private prison contracts require state and local governments to maintain a certain occupancy rate.
This rate usually comes to around 80 to 90 percent and if not met, taxpayers are required to pay for the empty beds, even if the crime rate of that particular area is fluctuating. Upper bar inmates, which are inmates that are awaiting trial, have accounted for 95% of the growth in jail population in the past 15 year according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
It could be argued that many of these people are put behind bars so that the state can meet the occupancy rate included in private contracts. The two largest private prison corporations in America, GEO and Corrections Corporation of America, received nearly $3 billion in revenue each in 2010.
Since 1989, these two companies and their associates have donated over $10 million to candidates, and have spent almost $25 million on lobbying efforts, according to The Washington Post.
Award-winning director Eugene Jarecki believes, “The prison industrial complex is perhaps, at least domestically, the most striking example of us putting profit before people.”
Jarecki directed The House I Live In, a documentary about drug policy in the United States and the repercussions of the War on Drugs. “It all stems from one basic misunderstanding,” he says. “The public good can be shepherded by private interests.”
Critics argue that private prisons cost the taxpayer and the government money without giving enough back to the community for that relationship to be considered beneficial, or even mutual. Others argue that private prisons lessen the load for our government.
As long as our nation utilizes private prisons in the way we do now, America will continue to debate whether we are the land of the free or a nation in chains.