It’s Not Enough to End Private Prisons. We Need a World Without Prisons.

Micah Herskind | First published at The Bias | 4/25/22

Private prisons aren’t the primary problem, nor is ending them the solution. Instead, we need a mass movement to abolish the prison industrial complex and transform the conditions that make incarceration thinkable in the first place.

“What do we want? Divestment! When do we want it? Now!

A group of student organizers chanted these words during a 2017 protest as we called on our university to divest from private prisons. The showdown followed nearly two years of campaigning, during which we had written proposals, circulated petitions, hosted teach-ins, and organized protests—all toward the demand that our university divest from private prison companies such as Core Civic and Geo Group, which contract to operate prisons, as well as the exploitative “service”-providing companies that feed on our nation’s massive punishment infrastructure. Private prisons, in our understanding, were at the center of mass incarceration.

Our campaign drew on a familiar set of arguments: that private prisons are fundamentally immoral because profiting from—and thus incentivizing—incarceration is wrong; that private prisons are dangerous because they focus on their bottom line, and thus cut corners on prison conditions; and that private prisons have fueled mass incarceration by lobbying for increased criminal penalties to grow their industry. Any institution which claims to value equality or justice, we argued, should neither invest in nor profit from private prison companies.

These are popular arguments, widely promoted by anti-private prison advocates for many years in a campaign that has since gone mainstream. Indeed, ending private prisons was incorporated into the Democratic Party’s 2016 platform and became a popular talking point for politicians like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Prominent financial institutions such as JP Morgan have announced their disassociation from private prison corporations, as have some of the largest public pension funds in the U.S. and Canada.

We worked tirelessly on our campaign. We obtained thousands of signatures on undergraduate, graduate, faculty, and alumni petitions. We held panels and other events. We rallied overwhelming support in a student government referendum on divestment. We wrote deeply researched proposals. But even as we campaigned, many of us were undergoing a transformation in our own political consciousness.

One day while discussing the campaign with another student organizer, I made a comment referencing the urgent need to end private prisons. “Yes,” she said, “but we also want to end all prisons.” That comment, and the many conversations that followed, sparked a journey that led me down the road of prison abolition instead of reform—of ending all prisons, not just “private” ones.

It opened me up to a series of questions: Why was I outraged at the idea of incentivized suffering, rather than suffering itself? What made me think that incarceration was only incentivized if I could see a company directly profiting? Was our campaign implicitly accepting “public” prisons as the gold standard against which to compare private prisons? How are public prisons, which regularly feature extreme violence and degradation, any acceptable standard at all? Why was the deliberate infliction of pain by the state on individuals fine, so long as we did not detect a profit motive?

Struggling through these questions brought new understanding: if you want to end private prisons, you should want to end all prisons. Private prisons are not problematic because they represent a particularly violent form of incarceration, but because they represent one facet of the prison industrial complex—which is where all who are outraged about the violence of incarceration should focus their energy.

For those who believe ending private prisons is the key to ending mass incarceration, this piece is an invitation to growth. It is a call to pivot from demanding an end to private prisons toward working to build a world without prisons altogether. Private prisons aren’t the primary problem, nor is ending them the solution. Instead, we need a mass movement to abolish the prison industrial complex and transform the conditions that make incarceration thinkable in the first place.

Private Prisons Aren’t the Primary Problem

In January 2021, Joe Biden signed an executive order that would phase out the use of private prisons at the federal level. While many were quick to celebrate the announcement, critiques from anti-prison organizers were just as swift. As geographer Lydia Pelot-Hobbs pointed out, Biden’s order was a weak rehash of a toothless Obama-era directive against renewing contracts with private prisons. Where the order does apply, its scope is small, affecting just 14,000 people held in private prisons at the federal level. And where it does not apply is all the more telling: Biden’s order would not impact those in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers, most of which are privately contracted. Most importantly, Pelot-Hobbs notes, “Biden’s executive order does nothing to reduce punitive power.”

Many scholars and organizers have thoroughly debunked the popular myths that underwrite an overwhelming focus on private prisons. Perhaps the deadliest blow to the private prison argument is that, ultimately, very few people are locked up in them. The vast majority of incarcerated people in the U.S.—roughly 91 percent, according to the Prison Policy Initiative—are held in public prisons, which are themselves sites of routine racialized and gendered physical, sexual, and psychological violence. As Craig Gilmore writes, violence is the bedrock of incarceration. There is no escaping the violence of human caging, regardless of which entity is responsible for its logistics.

In response to those who focus on the political impact of private prison companies, critics point out that whatever influence private prison companies can exercise through campaign contributions or lobbying is small change compared to the political power of public sector actors. Though often under-emphasized, these actors include prison guards, police unionsdistrict attorneyssheriffs, and others who wield significant political influence to expand the punishment system and grow their power.

Additionally, contrary to popular belief, private prison corporations were not responsible for the rise of mass incarceration. Instead, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore explains, they are parasites, leeching off our nation’s punishment bureaucracy, rather than creating it. Indeed, the policies and practices that created mass incarceration were in motion long before the rise of private prison corporations in the 1980s, and were orchestrated by politicians across the political spectrum and at every level of government. Private prison companies, Dan Berger writes, are not the drivers of mass incarceration, but rather the “byproducts of racial state violence in a capitalist society.”

Kay Whitlock calls the focus on ending private prisons a “misdirection,” a sleight of hand sold to the public as a challenge to mass incarceration while delivering very little at best. At worst, this misdirection “raises false hopes, offers false promises, and points many who want transformative change in the wrong direction”—and can even aid the growth of the punishment system through “alternatives to incarceration” such as probation, electronic monitoring, and reentry and diversion “services.”

We can see how this misdirection played out in just the first year of Biden’s presidency. In the time since his executive order “ending” federal use of private prisons, the federal incarcerated population has actually grown. As predicted, some companies have found workarounds to keep their prisons open. Where privately-run facilities have closed, they plan to reopen by filling those same beds with people detained by ICE. In the rare circumstance that a facility closes and stays closed, the people held there are moved to another prison, not released. Far from reducing or ending mass incarceration, Biden’s administration has instead opposed measures considered to be low-hanging fruit. Until recently, Biden even insisted that incarcerated people released on electronic monitoring during the beginning of the pandemic would have to return to prison.

In other words, the focus on private prisons provides an easy way for political elites to claim they want an end to mass incarceration without taking any action to actually reduce prison populations. Rather than taking on mass incarceration’s defining feature–incarceration on a mass scale–the sloganized call to “end mass incarceration” is reduced to limiting who is allowed to do the incarcerating. By denouncing private prisons, politicians like Biden can offload blame for mass incarceration onto a handful of companies, rather than the punitive policies that he has championed for decades

In short, if your goal is to end mass incarceration, focusing on private prison companies will not get you very far. 

Even still, for those who have been sold the lie that private prisons are to blame for our death-making punishment system, there is hope. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor shared at the 2019 Making and Unmaking Mass Incarceration conference, while it’s tempting to dismiss those who come to the issue of mass incarceration through the lens of private prisons, opposition to private prisons might still provide a pathway to abolition of the prison industrial complex—just as it did for me.

The Prison Industrial Complex Is the Problem

Private prison corporations are one of the most visible but least significant sectors of the prison industrial complex (PIC). As David Stein writes, private prisons “are a camera…for the broader system of mass incarceration. The camera’s snapshot of private prisons reflects all prisons: a few people make money and many more people get hurt.”

In fact, among the many entities involved in mass punishment, private prison corporations are a relatively downstream actor. As Angela Davis wrote over twenty years ago, “private prisons are only the most visible component of the increasing corporatization of punishment.” Further upstream are the construction and architecture industries building prisons and jails, the tech giants contracting policing and surveillance equipment, the developers relying on police to spur gentrification and clear unwanted people out of their communities, and the banks and financiers underwriting these projects. As Davis explains, “corporations that appear to be far removed from the business of punishment are intimately involved in the expansion of the prison industrial complex.” This is what it means for an economy to be hardwired to the punishment system.

The abolitionist organization Critical Resistance (CR) defines the PIC as “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems.” The PIC describes the ways in which the political-economic system of racial capitalism relies on the punishment to manage the inequality that capitalism generatesproduce the conditions for wealth accumulation, and secure legitimacy for the state.

While critics of private prisons object to the industry’s reliance on incentivized punishment, the systemic incentive for punishment extends far beyond profits for a few shareholders. As Alyxandra Goodwin explains, police and prisons are the “muscle of racial capitalism”—the system’s enforcement arm that suppresses dissent, protects capital, and rounds up and cages those deemed undesirable or threatening to the system. In other words, the PIC is not profitable because it enriches a few corporations or shareholders, but because it produces the very conditions for profit-making and the concentration of power that are essential to capitalism’s functioning.

Importantly, just as corporations rely on the punishment system, so too does the state. Indeed, an analysis of the punishment system that considers the profit motive too narrowly can lead to the wrong conclusions. In fact, the incarceration system is not profitable if we mean that it generates financial surpluses. Incarceration actually costs the state significant resources, and “devours the social wealth needed to address the very problems that have led to spiraling numbers of prisoners.” Even still, the state has a vested interest in relying on the PIC: the punishment infrastructure of the PIC “enables governments to establish state legitimacy through a claim to provide social ‘protection’ combined with their monopoly on the delegation of violence,” write Craig Gilmore and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. The state thus has its own interests, connected to but distinct from that of corporations, in maintaining policing and imprisonment.

Ultimately, focusing only on corporations’ role in mass punishment sidesteps the mechanisms by which people are policed, surveilled, incarcerated, and punished to begin with. The state, not companies, has the power to incarcerate. It is state actors who decide which conduct to criminalize, who to arrest, which “crimes” to prioritize for enforcement, which defendants get charged, and how they get sentenced. Even when state actors outsource the logistics of incarceration to private entities, it is the state that has the authority to punish and warehouse millions of people.

In short, expanding our analysis to the PIC—rather than just private prison companies—means understanding the many ways in which a broad array of both public and private forces work together to defend and expand incarceration. It means understanding that our entire political-economic system is built around mass racialized punishment—and that a movement whose primary focus is private prisons will fail to deliver the transformation we need.

Building a World Without Prisons

Organizing to abolish the prison industrial complex does not mean we should never strategically target companies involved in incarceration. For example, Silky Shah describes how organizers fighting to stop the construction of a privately operated superjail in Texas “knew the limits of the privatization argument, but deployed it strategically in the superjail fight, given the absence of a broader understanding of the harms of incarceration in south Texas at the time.” 

Even still, as Shah notes, any decision regarding where to devote organizing energy should be guided by the question of how we can shrink the scale, scope, and power of the PIC—a key facet of the abolitionist project. To the extent that we pursue strategic campaigns against corporations within the PIC, they must be rooted in opposition to the practice of punishment itself, not the identity of the punisher.

As our scrappy private prison divestment campaign learned and grew, we adopted an abolitionist politics. We learned some of the preceding lessons, worked on our own political education efforts on campus, and connected with organizations outside of our bubble to begin organizing against the PIC across the state. And even as we continued our campaign, we expanded our goals and demands to reflect an opposition to the PIC and prisons altogether.

Today, many of us still organize, but we chant a different refrain: abolish the PIC, and build a world without prisons, where everyone can be safe and thrive!


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