It may sound like a conspiracy theory to assert that our government purposely puts more people in prison to make money, but the current circumstances in our correctional system indicate this is true. Even if those involved in the process—like legislatures, governors, judges, and police—are not consciously workings towards making America the country with the largest population of prisoners housed in for-profit prisons, they have succeeded nonetheless.
Private prisons are prisons that are operated by corporations rather than governments. According to the Sentencing Project, private prisons incarcerated 121,718 people in the United States in 2017, representing 8.2 percent of the total prison population. Since 2000, the amount of people incarcerated in private prisons has increased by 39 percent.
“How that shows up, specifically in Montana, is that the Department of Corrections for the State of Montana essentially contracts out their responsibility for incarcerating people to a private, for-profit corporation,” said SK Rossi, the Director of Advocacy and Policy for the ACLU of Montana.
Montana’s private prison is located near Shelby. It’s called the Crossroads Correctional Facility, and it’s operated by CoreCivic. CoreCivic used to be called Corrections Corporation of America. It changed its name because of bad press regarding human rights abuses including forced labor and lying about understaffing prisons, resulting in increased violence between inmates. Montana had the opportunity to end its contract with CoreCivic a few years ago, but Governor Steve Bullock chose to renew.
“He’s one of the only democratic governors who has not made an effort to completely divest the state from private prisons,” Rossi said. “It was very disappointing. We hope that the next governor will do something different and will actually get Montana out of the private prison industry because it’s 2020, and it’s far past time.”
When we continue to make incarceration is an incentive to make more money, Rossi said it demonstrates how our country has never stopped viewing the criminal justice system as a way to extract free labor.
“I mean, we have a very long history of treating people in the criminal justice system as slaves,” Rossi said. “And that is actually rooted in slavery. When slavery was abolished, the next iteration was Jim Crow laws, and those Jim Crow laws were implemented so that people who were convicted of violating those Jim Crow laws could be used for manual labor in any number of ways, and that continues to this day.”
For example, in Montana, many inmates build furniture—a job that would normally fall to corporations.
“We started using incarcerated people for manual labor, and now we literally have a corporate structure that uses incarceration itself as a way to profit,” Rossi said. “Sometimes that includes manual labor, and sometimes they are just profiting off the warehousing of human beings.”
Rossi and other advocates recognize the corrections system as a more publicly refined version of slavery.
“It’s still serving the same purpose, and when you have a system that is built on the goal of forcing Black and Brown people into manual labor, there isn’t really a way to shake this out of the system moving forward,” Rossi said. “And the criminal justice system itself, the way we prosecute, the way we police, desperately impacts Brown and Black people.”
A main concern about private prisons is that they are motivated to combat criminal justice reform to protect their own profits.
“The inverse of that is that you see the criminalization, the over-criminalization of communities, as a boom to your profits,” Rossi said. “And the communities that are over-criminalized are Black and Brown communities because that’s the way our criminal justice system works.”
In its 2016 annual report, CoreCivic characterizes reforms that would reduce recidivism rates as a “risk factor,” meaning that it is actually a goal of theirs to increase convictions. When the people who operate prisons want more convictions, pressure to increase policing and criminalization follow, and the potential for wrongful convictions increases.
“I think that there are any number of things that make people vulnerable to wrongful convictions, but you can tell because of the disparate rates of incarceration, the disparate rates of arrests, the disparate rates of traffic stops by police, the disparate rates of searches by police—all of these things impact Brown and Black people more negatively than they impact White people,” Rossi said.
The idea that BIPOC are over-criminalized to increase incarceration rates and ultimately improve profits for private prisons is often met with the argument that Black and Brown people must commit more crime.
Rossi refutes this. Rossi used to work in Missouri where law enforcement agencies are required to annually report the demographics of their stops, searches, and arrests for traffic violations.
“For the last 15 or 16 years, what that data has shown is that Black folks in Missouri are almost twice as likely to be stopped, searched and arrested as White people in Missouri,” Rossi said. “But when you go further into the data, the number of White people with contraband in their vehicles is higher than the number of Black and Brown people. The data about who is actually committing more crimes does not justify the increased rates of stops, searches, and arrests of Black and Brown people.”
We do not have proof that this exists in Montana because the state is not required to gather statistics that would demonstrate demographic disparities; however, it can be inferred from the disproportionality of Indigenous people in Montana’s prison populations that racial disparity exists in our state’s policing as well.
“I’m sure, and you can come back to this in a few years when we actually have a bill passed that requires better data gathering, that the data will bear out, for example, that Indigenous people are stopped, searched, and arrested at a higher rate than White people in Montana,” Rossi said. “Black people probably are as well, as are Hispanic people.”
The concerns about privatization of the correctional system extend past prisons. In recent years, we have seen the emergence of private probation and parole services and private release centers.
“So every level of the correction system is becoming more privatized as time passes, and when that happens you know that those pieces of the system are probably not necessary because they’re being built out so much because they are profit motivated, and we need to start thinking about why we spend so much money on these corporations,” Rossi said.