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March 3, 2022

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Private prisons in the US testify to long track record of human rights violations

Correctional institutions are meant to uphold justice. However, in the United States, the suffering of those in for-profit jails makes them a testament to the country’s long track record of human rights violations.

Appalling records of what has happened and is happening in hundreds of private prisons across the United States have revealed a corrupt judicial system and national government, which can hardly be corrected.

Private prisons were founded in the 1980s to make up for bed shortages in federal and state prisons. Profit-oriented companies soon found loopholes to turn the facilities into a cash cow.

In the past 40 years, these prisons were notorious for a kids-for-cash scandal, pay-to-stay program, political donations, uncontrollable violence and exploitation of prison labor, and have been denounced as “an absolute hellhole.”

In 2011, a Pennsylvania judge was convicted of throwing out thousands of juvenile convictions while taking kickbacks from owners and builders of private prisons. That kids-for-cash scandal involved over 2,000 juveniles.

Compared with federal and state prisons, private ones are more violent and dangerous. US reporter Shane Bauer has unveiled such untold darkness in his book “American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment.”

A fact rarely known to the public is that incarcerated labor is often exploited. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, prison laborers in over 40 states have been used to make hand sanitizer and protective equipment with hourly wages far below a minimum level, and even without their own protective equipment to reduce infectious risks in prison lockdowns.

“That’s how you treated slaves,” said a prisoner in an audio link posted on Twitter and shared by Restore Justice, a criminal justice reform organization. “We have tacitly agreed to slave labor, upon which we all benefit,” said Megan French-Marcelin, director of campaigns at Worth Rises, which works to end profiteering in the prison system.

Yet despite the scandals, private prisons continue to be lucrative. The main three companies running over 200 private prisons in America, namely CoreCivic, the Geo Group and Management and Training Corporation, have reported a total annual profit of close to US$5 billion.

As an old saying goes, “when money talks, there are few interruptions.” Both US judges and politicians at federal and state levels may have facilitated prison profits.

The name list of those receiving funds from private prison companies includes both Republicans and Democrats.

The prison bed profiteers have blurred the function of jails as a means of rehabilitation. Instead, they are inclined to hold prisoners longer behind bars and even throw the innocent inside in a brazen violation of human rights.

When the Joe Biden administration moved to close problematic private prisons, the companies created a new market out of immigrants. Winning contracts from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and state governments provide a windfall to keep detention centers open.

According to a CNN report released in November 2021, since Biden took office, the White House has approved over US$888 million in direct payments to CoreCivic, the GEO Group and their subsidiaries. Most of the spending came from ICE.

Why are private prison companies so powerful? The Justice Policy Institute has revealed in a report that for-profit prison companies primarily use three strategies to influence policy: lobbying, direct campaign contributions, and building relationships, networks, and associations.

These strategies are in fact habitual tricks that businesses use to collude with politicians in the United States and epitomize US money politics, an incurable systematic defect.

As long as that defect persists, the slave-like conditions in US private prisons will endure.

The author is a Xinhua writer.


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