The big business of mass incarceration

Mar 28, 2016, 1:27 PM EDT
Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary. (Source: Danny Fowler/flickr)
Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary. (Source: Danny Fowler/flickr)

The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author of this blog are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of Louise Blouin Media. This is part two in a series that examines corruption in the U.S. prison system. See part one here.

Harper’s Magazine’s April issue published excerpts from a 22-year old interview with former presidential advisor John Ehrlichman, one of President Richard Nixon’s top cronies during the Watergate scandal. He revealed to Harper’s writer Dan Baum how the Nixon administration used the U.S. political and legal system to wage war against its opponents and in order to further its own agenda -- a strategy that can still be seen today in the U.S.’s industrial prison system.

“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.” Ehrichman told Dan Baum. 

In 1971, President Nixon declared the “war on drugs, ” increasing the size of federal drug control agencies, and implementing mandatory sentencing and the use of no-knock warrants. The number of people incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 1997. At that time, African Americans made up roughly 13% of the U.S. population but comprised 49% of the prison population. If what Ehrichman said is true, then public acceptance of the “war on drugs” and mass incarceration was, and continues to be, hugely successful at disrupting “those communities.”

48 years after Nixon’s 1968 campaign, the number of people in American prisons and jails has climbed to over 2 million. Some reports estimate that one in five people in the federal prison system have been convicted of non-violent drug offenses. Statistics compiled from a 2010 census revealed a continued disparity between the percentage of African Americans in the U.S. population (around 13%) and the percentage of African Americans in jails and prisons (39%). What is even more troubling is how profitable it has become to lock people up.

There are several private companies that are getting rich off what has become know as the prison industrial complex, notably the Correctional Corporation of America (CCA), and the GEO group. Indeed, their business is booming. The for-profit prison industry is worth an estimated $70 billion. Large corporations approach state officials and governments, usually ones that are struggling financially, with proposals to build or buy their prisons. They then contract a certain number of beds and charge the state a daily fee for each prisoner. There are often fines if all the beds are not filled, creating financial incentives to lock people up. While the companies may claim that privatizing prison is less expensive than leaving the state to operate prisons themselves, there is no conclusive evidence to support that claim. 

The success of private prison corporations like CCA and the GEO group has political implications. In the past decade, CCA has spent $17 million lobbying. The GEO group has spent nearly $3 million on lobbying in the last eight years and $2.5 million on political contributions between 2003-2012. (And, these are just two examples.) Factor in lucrative contracts for health care and even telecommunication used by inmates, and the prison business looks even bigger.

Ehrlichman’s and Nixon’s goal to criminalize blacks and liberals — thus disrupting their communities — was sadly achieved, particularly when it comes to the African American community. The “war on drugs” helped to normalize the current flawed system of mass incarceration and profiteering --  leaving us to wonder if there will be another John Ehrlichman-like interview 50 years from now.