Arizona’s controversial immigration law is actually a business model carefully crafted by private prisons rather than a law aiming to fix anything about America’s broken immigration system. The seeds of this law — SB 1070 — were planted last year when two men from a private prison company showed up in Benson, AZ to sell the idea of a prison made specifically for illegal immigrants.
When NPR broke a story revealing the link between the private prison companies and SB 1070, many expressed outrage at how the prison industry is working to profit off of immigrant communities. What was not much discussed is the historical roots of private prisons and the reality that this industry has in fact been acquiring massive wealth off of communities of color at least since the 1860s Reconstruction Era.
The privatization of prisons in modern American history is directly linked to society’s desire — specifically in the South — to find cheap labor to replace the workforce lost to slave owners after emancipation. After the Civil War, prison populations in the south skyrocketed — mostly by the flow of newly freed slaves into correctional facilities as a result of the Black Codes, vagrancy laws, and other policies specifically targeting them. The convict lease system was quickly set up to return the newly freed slaves who were being funneled into prison back to their employers who had just lost their slave labor.
Private companies paid the state a fee in return for the ability to lease out convicts (who did not receive wages at that time). Many southern businessmen acquired massive amounts of wealth by doing this — including Nathan Bedford Forrest, the cofounder and first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who made a portion of his millions trading slaves and running a prison farm camp on President’s Island in the late 1800’s. Although the convict lease system was phased out across the country through the 20th century, its legacy lives on not only in the continued disproportion of minorities in America’s prisons — which house over 2.3 million people, over 2/3 of them people of color — but also through the private prison industry.
Today’s private prison are for-profit contractors who enter into agreements with local, state, or federal government to run correctional facilities and receive per diem funding based on the number of people they confine. America’s “war on drugs” has led to mass incarceration and overpopulation of our prisons and jails, becoming too large a burden for governments to manage. The situation created a most ideal opportunity for private sector involvement in the prison system. The trend quickly evolved to complete private building, ownership, and management of facilities — beginning with the Corrections Corporations of America (CCA — the largest private prison corporation in the U.S.) being awarded a full contract for a prison in Tennessee in 1984. Today, over 264 private correctional facilities exist in the U.S, housing roughly 100,000 inmates.
Although private prison companies claim they provide more cost efficient ways to manage an overflowing prison population, studies cast serious doubt on whether they have provided actual cost savings. Much of the research has produced inconclusive findings, and many studies have actually been tied to financial backing, by the private prison industry itself.
Even the Bureau of Justice Statistics has admitted that savings promised by private prisons “have simply not materialized.” But what is abundantly clear is a host of other private businesses — from food services, to medical care, to communications and transportation services — also profit off of inmates and their families. Private phone companies, for example, charge notoriously high prices for collect calls that inmates make to their friends and families.
One analysis shows that prisoners in at least 10 states pay over $1/minute for out of state calls. And according to reports, feeding prisoners is an industry totaling $1 billion a year, and growing between 10-15 percent annually. In fact in the late 1980’s, Campbell Soup Company who has contracted with private prisons, recognized America’s prison system as “the fastest growing food service market.”
And the latest example of how private prisons accrue wealth and stay in business by targeting communities of color is Arizona’s controversial SB 1070. This past Spring, SB 1070, which forces local law enforcement to act as pseudo immigration officers by asking for immigration papers from people they stop, generated much emotionally charged debate around the nation. But few looked into the source of this controversial bill, until NPR revealed the result of their investigation last week: SB 1070 was the brainchild of representatives of the private prison industry and Arizona sate politicians. Together, they devised a perfect and profitable plan to operate new private facilities, filled with “illegal” immigrants that would be funneled in via SB 1070 – and eventually other copycat laws that began to pop up across the country.
Once again, private prisons succeeded in targeting communities with no political power. And through political campaign contributions — for example, the donation of $100K by CCA and $50K by Correctional Medical Services to a political action committee during two key election cycles — the private prison industry and other corporations who stand to gain from continued incarceration ensure that politicians who are friendly to their cause remain in power and that profit flows to their pockets at the expense of communities who have no similar influence to wield. And so, the story of the private prison industry’s role in Arizona’s immigration law is nothing but business as usual.