While Chris Matthews grilled Trump during the most recent townhall, the GOP candidate uttered one of many outrageous statements regarding the country’s prison system that went unchallenged and largely unnoticed.
“I do think we can do a lot of privatizations, and private prisons it seems to work a lot better,” said Trump when asked how he planned to reform the country’s prison system.
Matthews didn’t ask Trump to elaborate or explain why he believes giving prisons a profit motive to lock people up is a good idea. But the fact of the matter is that the private prison boom in America has been so disastrous that even members of the Republican party have began speaking out against them.
Private prisons have also failed to prove that they “work a lot better.” I’ll get to that in a minute, but first it’s important to understand why for-profit prisons, which are funded by taxpayers, exist in the first place.
The incarceration rate in the U.S. is the highest in the world with approximately 716 per 100,000 people ending up behind bars. An even more sobering statistic is that while America represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, it houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. Are these shockingly high stats due to Americans behaving more criminally than those in other countries?
However, lawmakers have pushed for and supported a system that profits handsomely from criminalizing non-violent individuals that don’t pose a threat to society.
It’s both fitting and symbolic that our current Orwellian private prison boom began in 1984 when Corrections Corporation of America was awarded a contract to take over a facility in Tennessee. What prompted the lucrative contract was the amplified war on drugs.
The demonization of marijuana by the Reagan administration led to overcrowding in state and federal prisons. Between 1980 and 2011, the state and federal prison population increased from 316,000 to 1.5 million, with another 700,000 in locally run jails. That’s when the largest private prison companies known as CCA and GEO Group realized there was big money to be made by signing contracts with states that simply didn’t have the resources to imprison the influx of non-violent drug offenders. America’s cultural disease of criminalizing rather than rehabilitating its citizens deepened.
Private prisons usually take advantage of legalized bribery and team up with lobbying groups like ALEC to push for “tough on crime” legislation, including the draconian war on drugs, three strikes laws, mandatory minimums, and non-parole sentences. These aren’t laws designed to keep the country safe, but they are meant to keep a steady flow of prisoners into these facilities so the corporations behind them can turn a massive profit.
The whole point is to make people who have serious addictions out to be dangerous criminals who deserve to be locked away. But once they’re imprisoned, nothing is done to rehabilitate them because there is a vested interest in making sure they end up in prison again.
Ironically, these “private” institutions are funded by taxpayers on the state level, so essentially Americans are paying for a system that is likely to criminalize them for ridiculous reasons. When CCA or GEO group signs contracts with state lawmakers, they ensure there is an agreement on the minimum occupancy rate. That means that the state needs to ensure that at least 90 percent of the beds are occupied at these facilities regardless of how many people actually break the law.
In fact, 90% is the most frequent occupancy guarantee requirement. Andy Kroll from Mother Jones wrote about the injustice of these requirements a few years ago:
“In the Public Interest found that 41 [out of 62] of those contracts included occupancy requirements mandating that local or state government keep those facilities between 80 and 100 percent full. In other words, whether crime is rising or falling, the state must keep those beds full.”
The occupancy rate is just one way that these prisons fail to save taxpayers any money, so I’m not entirely sure how or why Trump believes they “work better.” Proponents of private prisons argue that they cost less to operate compared to publicly run facilities, but what they fail to mention is that private prisons also get to pick and chose the types of inmates that lock away. Unsurprisingly, their contracts grant them the ability to house inexpensive, low-level, and non-violent prisoners while public facilities deal with costly violent offenders who often have mental and physical disabilities.
Due to all the actions taken by private prisons in the name of profiteering, the recidivism rate in the U.S. is astronomical. One of many studies conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics tracked 404,638 prisoners in 30 states after their release from prison in 2005. The study found that within three years of release about 67.8 percent of prisoners were rearrested. Within five years of release about 76.6 percent of released prisoners were thrown back in prison.
Trump likes to brag about the fact that he isn’t bought and paid for by corporations like many of our current politicians. But what good does that do when he’s ignorant, hateful, and corrupt without the influence of money in politics? We simply can’t call the U.S. the “land of the free” when we literally lock away more people per capita than any other country. There’s a reason why we have a prison industrial complex that allows for a corporation like CCA to make $1.79 billion in revenue in 2015 alone.
We are the land of the corporations and the imprisoned. For a man who’s described as someone who “calls it like it is” he certainly hasn’t been able to call a spade a spade when it comes to our system of over-criminalization.