If Fyodor Dostoevsky was right when he said that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” then journalist Shane Bauer wants us to know just how uncivilized we are. More importantly, in his new book American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey Into the Business of Punishment, he wants to expose the truth of the private prison industry’s inhumane treatment of prisoners for the sake of boosting profit margins. The result might be the most important book about criminal justice in the United States since Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Prison walls are designed to keep people in, but also to keep people out. The prison industrial complex, and in particular the private prison industry, thrives on secrecy and opacity. It is rare when news about what happens inside prisons leaks to the public, usually after a riot, or during the recent inmate hunger strikes. The prison industry seems to think that if it keeps its activity out of sight, it will remain, for most Americans, out of mind. Shane Bauer, a journalist for Mother Jones Magazine, wanted to literally give the inside story on how private prisons are run. He applied for a corrections officer position at Winn Prison, run by the Corrections Corporation of America, which has since rebranded itself as CoreCivic. During the four months he worked in Winn, Bauer covertly recorded thousands of hours of audio, including conversations with prisoners, guards, and supervisors. The results are both sickening and revelatory. It is obvious how little CCA cares about rehabilitating the inmates it is paid to incarcerate. The company is far more interested in maximizing its profits, often failing to provide prisoners with educational opportunities, recreation, or even adequate nutrition and healthcare. Bauer notes that inmates are not protected from each other, and that inmates who stab other inmates typically are neither charged with a crime nor shipped to a higher security prison. Even in the case of an inmate suicide attempt, CCA’s priority is monetary, frequently classifying such attempts as “self-mutilation,” a distinction that allows the company to charge the inmate for a hospital visit. CCA even seems apathetic about the possibility of prisoners breaking out of prison, with one inmate’s escape going unnoticed for hours due to unmanned watchtowers. The only active step CCA ever seems to take is to avoid liability in the case of an inmate death. Bauer also depicts his fellow correction officers as cruel and callous. The prison is perpetually understaffed and the CO’s are barely paid more than minimum wage. The only seeming benefit of the position is the potential to abuse the power granted to them over prisoners, a power endorsed by those in charge. “If you are an officer and you do something one hundred percent wrong,” says one of the CO’s training Bauer, “I’m going to take your side right on the spot.” Dehumanizing the inmates is specifically encouraged; at one point the prison’s assistant warden says that the goal of the CO’s is to “institutionalize” the prisoners, and that “We don’t want them to feel as though they are individuals. We want them, for lack of a better term, to feel like a herd of cattle.” American Prison is a damning exposé, but the most compelling aspect of its narrative is the emotional challenges Bauer relates during his time as a CO. The psychological toll that working in a prison takes is immense, which explains why the rates of PTSD for prison guards is higher than for soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. “This job will drive you to drinking,” Bauer’s captain says to him. Laced throughout the book is a history of the prison industry in the United States. Penitentiaries began as an alternative to hanging or whipping a convicted felon, and as early as 1825 states were leasing their prisoners out to serve as cheap labor for private companies. But two events, a century apart, were responsible for the two biggest booms in the incarceration rate. The first was the end of slavery, when Southern states began to use prison labor as a replacement for slave labor, and created laws designed to imprison swaths of African-Americans. The second was the War on Drugs of the 1970s. When incarceration rates skyrocketed due to aggressive policing and extreme mandatory minimums for drug possession, states sought a way to expand their prison systems without taking on new debt, and newly created private prison corporations like CCA stepped in to fill that void. T. Don Hutto, co-founder of CCA, was also the head of the American Correctional Assocation, the largest private prison association in the country, a position he used to push for privatization. By giving us a ground-level view of the deeply dysfunctional private prison system, as well as giving us the context for its rise to prominence, Bauer helps us understand that mass incarceration in America isn’t interested in rehabilitating prisoners and preparing them for life after prison. In fact, it has always valued profits over people. Equally horrifying and heartbreaking, American Prison is the wakeup call we need to finally reign in the practices of private prisons, and to overhaul our entire system of mass incarceration. Tom Houseman, Policy Director
Almost two years ago, I was in Arizona supporting a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana there. I learned that the largest contributor in opposition was the Catholic Church. A prison food service industry, supporters of privatized prisons was a close second. Why? The fewer people in prison, the fewer meals they would be able to sell. I don’t agree with the Catholic position on marijuana, but at least I can understand where it comes from: Catechism 2291 opposes all drug use “except only on strictly therapeutic grounds.” (Presumably that includes alcohol and cigarettes.) I am far less sympathetic to the privatized prison industry, and its suppliers. At the end of the day, it is greed that drives their bottom line. Above all else, Jesus opposed “hard-heartedness.” Surely all people of good faith excoriate all those who profit from human misery. Since our founding three years ago, Clergy for New Drug Policy has pursued an agenda that would end the War on Drugs. The privatized prison industry thrives, indeed, depends upon mass incarceration, driven in no small measure by harsh drug laws. That is why today we are adding opposition to privatized prisons to the CNDP agenda. In 2015 twenty-one states had contracts with private prisons. Texas leads all states with about 14,000 incarcerated in prisons owned or run by corporations. Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Arizona all have more than 7,500. Six states have banned the use of private prisons since 2000. Privatized prisons house only about 8% of our 2.1 million prison population, but the industry wields a disproportionate impact. It contributes in powerful and sinister ways to our national “culture of punishment.” Launched in 1983, the private prison industry peaked in the mid-1990s after President Clinton dramatically increased federal funding for prison construction. The industry’s power was on the decline after 2010 in the face of national concern about the costs of mass incarceration, and was on the verge of disappearing in August 2016, when the Obama administration issued a memorandum terminating federal use of private prisons. The industry has found new life, however, in the “law and order” stance of President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Their desire to reinvigorate the private prison industry was no secret. On November 9, 2016, the stock of CoreCivic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of American, rose by 20%. The value of the two biggest private prison providers doubled in the six months after election day. The highly volatile industry has demonstrated its ability to adapt, like a virus, to new markets. Responding to national policy criminalizing immigrants, it began to build detention facilities for this population. The private prison industry now manages 62%—over 350,000 individuals—of all beds in detention facilities run by ICE. Government Accounting Office studies have never substantiated the industry claim that it cuts costs and operates more efficiently than publicly-operated prisons. Nor is it difficult to find horror stories of poorly trained and unsupervised staff contributing to violence within prisons. The industry works with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a nonprofit trade group through which conservative state legislators and corporations develop model legislation that is shared and often adopted by states. “Three strikes” laws and mandatory minimum sentences with virtually no opportunity for parole are among ALEC’s legislative products. For several years, a leader of the for-profit prison industry was the chair of the ALEC’s policy task force. The most compelling argument against private prisons is that investors gain only when individuals are put in jail. The industry is driven by the financial incentive toward punishment that destroys individual lives. It is a lobbying force that shapes our “culture of punishment” by pushing national policy toward greater mass incarceration. Clergy for a New Drug Policy endorses the abolition of the privatized prison industry and the termination of all state and federal contracts with for-profit companies for the building of prisons and the housing of prisoners. We urge you to join us in this goal and will provide you with opportunities to make your voices heard in the months ahead. Reverend Alexander Sharp
Within the discourse and research surrounding the War on Drugs, the experiences of women and gender non-conforming individuals have tended to be left out. This omission creates space for a tacit assumption that these individuals do not suffer from discriminatory policing. In her new book Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, Andrea Ritchie dispels this assumption. She shows that the War on Drugs actually increased rates of arrest among women of color more than it did among men. She offers the following statistics: “Between 1986 and 1991, the number of Black women in state prison for drug offenses nationwide increased by more than 800 percent. This was nearly double the increase for Black men and more than triple that of white women, making Black women the fastest-growing population of prisoners during this period.” “From 2010 to 2014, women’s drug arrests increased by 9 percent, while men’s decreased by 7.5 percent. These disparities were even starker at the height of the drug war. Between 1986 and 1995, arrests of adult women for drug abuse violations increased by 91.1 percent compared to 53.8 percent for men.” Not only has the War on Drugs disproportionately increased the arrest rates for women of color, but it has also tapped into broader, destructive cultural narratives that shape the manner in which police engage these women Fantastical Imaginings The Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes, a womanist thinker and one of the greatest ethicists of our times, coined the term “fantastic hegemonic imagination” to describe ideas fashioned by dominant groups that reshape the world according to their own understanding in a way that both mangles and subordinates the identities and experiences of non-dominant groups. According to Townes, “ the fantastic hegemonic imagination traffics in peoples’ lives that are caricatured and pillaged so that the imagination that creates the fantastic can control the world in its own image.” This hegemonic imagination gives rise to evil and maintains it in the structures of everyday living. While the images are fantastical, their malicious effects upon those whose lives are “caricatured and pillaged” are real and concrete. Townes offers multiple examples of caricatures of African American women dreamed up by the hegemonic imagination: the Sapphire, the bossy Black woman who usurps a dominant, male role; the Mammy, the desexualized maternal figure perfectly content to raise the children of her enslaver; and the lascivious Jezebel, the Mammy’s “evil twin,” who seeks always to seduce in predatory fashion. These stereotypes, have justified evils visited upon African American women during the era of slavery and in the decades that followed. The Mammy stereotype occluded the trauma of slavery with the illusion of women content with their enslavement, while the Jezebel stereotype justified the widespread rape of enslaved women. The Sapphire, who threatened the white patriarchal hierarchy and could not be subdued, justified the use of severe abuse to subordinate Black women. Policing Realities Through meticulous research, statistics, and case examples, Andrea Ritchie demonstrates the evil that these stereotypes- what she refers to as “controlling narratives”– continue to perpetuate through their insidious influence upon the policing and incarceration of women and gender nonconforming people. She writes that Under both Jezebel and Sapphire stereotypes, Black women are perceived as subhuman, animalistic to be violated, feared, and punished. Any departure from the mammy role in a police interaction, therefore, becomes dangerous for a Black woman, her stance presumed to be unacceptably aggressive…her sexuality automatically deviant…her personhood undeserving of protection. Ritchie argues that these stereotypes legitimize aggression- including sexual violence- against women of color in encounters with police. She documents patterns of sexual abuse within police departments, in which officers would coerce women into sexual acts by threatening them with arrest. In the case of a police officer in Eugene, Oregon, who was convicted of serially sexually assaulting women, she reports that his supervisors had dismissed complaints because they came from ‘junkies and prostitutes.’” Within the War on Drugs, cavity searches also constitute a form of state-sponsored sexual assault. Ritchie shares multiple stories of women subjected to invasive searches of their vaginas. In one instance, police conducted such a search “under threat of having her teeth removed with needle-nose pliers.” In others, individuals were subjected to cavity searches alongside the road, in full public view.” These stories of threat, assault, and humiliation are the everyday realities of what Townes calls the “cultural production of evil.” Ritchie shares many stories of the abuse, trauma, and even death of women of color and non-gender-conforming people at the hands of law enforcement. Yet, as she notes, these stories have rarely garnered popular attention. They are eclipsed not only by dominating stereotypes that suggest the treatment was deserved, but also by a movement against mass incarceration and the War on Drugs that has largely focused on the experiences of men. Opposing Evil, Telling a New Story To oppose the fantastic hegemonic imagination and the realities of oppression it creates, Townes offers the response of countermemory. We must remember that the stories can always be told a different way, and look for those stories hidden underneath the dominant narratives. This is precisely what Ritchie offers in Invisible No More, as its very title suggests. The stories that she tells of the experiences of women and gender non-conforming individuals are brutal and difficult to read. Yet they are the testimony against the Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire narratives that would claim that coercing sex is not rape and that lethal force is a legitimate police response to unarmed women who do not pose a physical threat. It is through the telling of these stories that we can begin to break up the controlling narratives that perpetuate unjust systems.
The likely confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions to be U.S. attorney general is deeply troubling. He believes people who possess marijuana should be arrested. He has recently opposed reform of mandatory minimum sentencing laws and appears to support privatized prisons. Surely clemency is beyond the pale. But the real difficulty goes far deeper than his views about particular policies. He threatens to take us back to the days before we became aware of our national collective responsibility for mass incarceration. It is only seven years – how much longer it seems – since Michelle Alexander told us in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness that the United States puts more people in prison per capita than any nation on earth and relegates African American and Hispanic communities to third-world status. Her landmark book exposed the War on Drugs, exploding in the 1980’s, as the primary cause.