14/03/2017 13:11 GMT | Updated 15/03/2018 05:12 GMT

American Prisons Need Reform

In the last 30 years, America has become the prison capital of the world. What has propelled the land of the free to become the isle of the incarcerated is the rise of for-profit prisons. Today there are over 2.3million people behind bars, more than in China.

I am a frequent prison visitor. The majority of inmates are mostly non-violent offenders and about two thirds of whom are African American or Latino. People who have been incarcerated are overwhelmingly poor, substance abusing, mentally ill, and often illiterate. There are 200,000 women in prison, many who again are non-violent but are serving time because they wouldn't rat out their boyfriend or partner. For many of these non-violent offenders there are cheaper and better ways to rehabilitate. It shocks me that a series of three drug convictions can land someone in prison for life; two car robberies can earn 24 years.

Prison in America has shockingly come to echo the exploitation of minority populations during the days of slavery. Each prisoner is a long-term cash cow for the owners of private prisons.

For-profit prisons are not motivated to incorporate real rehabilitation programs into their operations, because it may take away revenue garnered from a returning prisoner. As a result, inmates subsist in bare-bones conditions with few tools to give them a better shot at becoming productive citizens. Furthermore, for-profit prisons are more violent and provide few opportunities or educational resources to inmates.

We know this doesn't work to keep former offenders. Getting an education while incarcerated has been proved to reduce reoffending-- the ACLU has been telling us this for years. But private prison owners aren't mandated to reduce recidivism. Their only responsibility is to their shareholders.

Private prisons are big business. The Bureau of Prisons paid $639 million to private prisons in fiscal year 2014, averaging $22,159 per prisoner. Some states spend more per prisoner than they do on Higher Education.

For profit companies represent approximately 7% of state prisons and 18% of federal prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice. The two largest organizations, CoreCivic and GEO Group, are also responsible for the majority of the three quarters of federal immigration detainees private prisons hold. Private prisons receive a guaranteed amount of money for each prisoner, independent of what it costs to maintain each one.

The lure of big money is corrupting the nation's criminal justice system, replacing notions of safety and public service with a drive for higher profits. The eagerness of elected officials to pass tough-on-crime legislation -- combined with their unwillingness to disclose the external and social costs of these laws -- has encouraged all sorts of financial improprieties. In Mississippi, which has America's second highest incarceration rate, the former Corrections Commissioner, Chris Epps in 2011 said he couldn't get rid of Mississippi's private companies running prisons "because of all the money they spread around Jackson." Then in a moment that you simply can't make up, it was found that Epps himself accepted up to $2 million in bribes and kickbacks from the private prison industry.

Only last summer the Obama administration started down the path to correct the ridiculousness of privatizing prisons by deciding to phase out the use of for profit institutions by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. This had a direct impact on the bottom line of the organizations in this space. However, since the election of President Trump and the appointment of AG Jeff Sessions, CoreCivic's stock prince has climbed 80 percent and Geo's has gained 80 percent. This diminished the impact of the previous administration's work by simple announcement by the Attorney General that they will continue to rely on private prisons.

Today, private prisons are profitable; their systems, perverse and dehumanizing. If we want to do some good through privatization, why not privatize rehabilitation with bonuses for successful reintegration of inmates who don't re-offend? Then private sector's creativity would be channeled to help rather than devastate our society.

What if the resourcefulness, hustle and drive of those incarcerated, was flooded back into the labour market rather than kept behind bars? It's time to embrace prison reform by first rooting out immoral for-profit prisons.