Next week, March 7, will mark the 52nd anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the historic march and shocking police riot in Selma, Alabama, that helped build public support for passage of the Voting Rights Act. Now, a half-century later, an avowed critic of that law — former Alabama Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, who was born in Selma — has been confirmed as attorney general of the United States. In one of his first acts in office — reversing Obama’s order to phase out the federal government’s use of private prisons — he has begun to weaken civil rights protections.
The decision on private prisons reflects Trump’s desire to repeal all things Obama. It expresses the ideological bias of reactionaries like Sessions toward privatizing public functions. It also reveals the pervasive corruption already apparent in the Trump administration. The two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States — GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) — and their associates have, according to Reason Magazine, contributed “more than $10 million to candidates since 1989 and have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts.”
When Trump stoked public fears of violent crime in our cities, called our prison system a “disaster,” and endorsed “privatizations and private prisons,” the industry ponied up hundreds of thousands of dollars to support his candidacy. Since Trump won the election, share prices of GEO Group and CoreCivic have soared more than 100 percent. In our corrupted politics, Sessions’ act helps consolidate their return on investment.
Reviving private prisons, however, represents far more than mere anti-Obama venom, ideological preference or even political corruption. It tramples basic civil and human rights. And African Americans and Latinos, who disproportionately populate our prisons, will suffer the most.
Incarcerating people in for-profit prisons is morally indefensible. Locking people up and turning them over to companies whose primary concerns are profits and return to investors is a recipe for abuse. And the record of private prisons demonstrates repeatedly that abuse is pervasive.In Sessions’ home state of Alabama, for example, whites constitute two-thirds of the total population but only 42 percent of the prison population. African Americans represent only one-fourth of the total population, but over half (54 percent) of the incarcerated.
This is the cause of repeated upheaval and scandal. Private prisons suffer more violence. Underpaid guards too often punish prisoners without accountability. Private prisons, Obama’s Justice Department found, aren’t as safe for prisoners or for guards as public prisons. They lack the services that might revive hope rather than crush it, such as educational programs and job training. Despite their companies’ claims, private prisons don’t save government much money either.
Worse, the thirst for profit overrides the needs of the incarcerated. Private prisons are notorious for skimping on food, facilities and health care. They gouge prisoners even for using the telephone to stay in contact with loved ones. Worse, the private companies generally demand that the government guarantee that their cells will be full, even if actual crime rates are falling or if harsh sentencing is rolled back. Nearly two-thirds of private prison contracts mandate that state and local governments sustain an occupancy rate — usually 90 percent — or taxpayers pay for the empty beds. At the federal level, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) budget is mandated by the Congress to maintain detention beds for at least 34,000 immigrants daily.
Sessions’ order impacts some 14,000 federal prisoners, a number that has been trending down in recent years. Most of the 2 million prisoners in America are sentenced and held at the state and local level. To them, Sessions is sending a strong signal. The federal government will be ramping up detentions, particularly of immigrants. It signals to states and localities — many of which have been souring on private prisons —that the federal government is all in for privatization.
Trump has promised a new day for what he calls America’s “inner cities.” But what we’ve seen so far is a return to the failed policies of the past — law and order rhetoric combined with calls for tougher police tactics, harsher sentences, and now a corrupt and indefensible embrace of privatized prisons. With Sessions in the DOJ, Trump’s divisive racial rhetoric is about to turn into policy.