The two phases of the prison-industrial complex: the war on drugs and the war on immigrants

By Alan Bean

This essay was presented at the recent Samuel DeWitt Proctor conference in Dallas, Texas.

I went from being a Baptist preacher to my current work as a justice advocate in July of 1999.  A massive drug bust hit the little farming community of Tulia, Texas, putting forty-seven people, most of them black, in jails and prisons.  Some of us didn’t think it was wise to let a gypsy cop with a reputation for dishonesty send men and women to prison for up to 300 years on nothing but his uncorroborated say-so.

As the long battle for justice evolved, I started asking how it had come to this.  The locals assured me that Tulia hardly had a single black resident in 1950 when they figured out how to pump the waters of the Ogallala Aquifer up to the dry prairie.  Suddenly, Swisher County was blooming like the proverbial rose and share croppers from Deep East Texas were migrating westward.  They were forced to live in little shanty towns on the wrong side of the tracks.  There was hardly any running water or police protection and everyone, especially the children, suffered through the winter months.  But there was more than enough work to go around.  It didn’t pay well, for sure, but it was enough to keep food on the table and the young folk out of trouble.  Most of the time, anyway.

Then the water dried up, all but the biggest farmers went out of business, and the agricultural revolution that created Tulia was over.  Everyone who could leave, left.  For those who remained, the only growing sector of the economy was law enforcement and corrections.  Failed white farmers were hiring on as prison guards and police officers; their former field hands were cycling in and out of jail and prison.

Tulia’s big drug bust was simply an expansion of a process that had been evolving for two decades. Tulia was America writ small.  The prisons going up throughout rural Texas (including one just outside Tulia) housed folks from desperately poor neighborhoods in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio where legitimate jobs were increasingly scarce and the underground economy was the only game in town.

Tulia was about mass incarceration and the war on drugs, fertile ground for what we now know as the prison-industrial complex.  Prisons in places like Tulia were the only answer for poverty (urban and rural) that Texas was willing to provide or consider.  And Texas had caught a particularly bad case of a national disease.

In the process, an enormous infrastructure of prosecutors, defense attorneys, bailiffs and probation and parole officers came into existence as the criminal justice system became a huge job creator on which we are now hopelessly dependent.

When most people talk about the prison industrial complex they have private prisons in mind.

Between 1999 and 2010, the prison population, private, state and federal, increased by 18%.  That is a modest figure considering that, between 1980 and 2000, the prison population jumped from just under 320,000 to almost 2 million, an increase of 600%.  In other words, the prison industrial complex exploded between 1980 and 2000 then essentially leveled off.  Though crime, by most measures, was far worse in 1980 than it is now, we are locking up six times as many people.

But while the total prison and jail population has increased by a relatively modest 18% in the past ten years, the growth rate in the private prison industry has been 80% and the huge increase has occurred in the federal system where we have seen a growth rate of 784% in the private prison population during the last decade.

When we talk about the growth of private prisons, we are primarily dealing with a federal phenomenon.  Twenty states have no private prisoners at all, and an additional five have just a handful.  In other words, the number of states with private prisons is approximately equal to the number of states with none.

In the past decade, fifteen states have increased their private prison populations, some dramatically; other states are shutting down their private prisons.  But when we’re talking about the growth of the private prison industry we’re talking about the federal system and we’re talking about immigration.

If the first phase of the prison industrial complex it was all about the war on drugs; the second phase is largely related to a post-nine-eleven explosion in deportation.  The private prison industry has encouraged the passage of anti-immigration like Arizona’s infamous SB 1070, by working through ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.  Writing from Arizona, Chris Kirkham puts it like this:

In Washington, the industry’s lobbyists have influenced policy to secure growing numbers of federal inmates in its facilities, while encouraging Congress to increase funding for detention bedspace. Here in this southern Arizona community, private prison companies share the spoils of their business with the local government, effectively giving area law enforcement an incentive to apprehend as many undocumented immigrants as they can.

This confluence of forces has contributed to a doubling of the ranks of immigrant detainees, to about 400,000 a year. Nearly half are now held in private prisons, up from one-fourth a decade ago, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The two largest for-profit prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America and The GEO Group, Inc., have more than doubled their revenues from the immigrant detention business since 2005.

Private prison companies like CCA and Geo Group argue that their slice of the incarceration pie is growing because private prisons are cheap and efficient.  This is not true.  According to a recent report released by the Sentencing Project:

Privately managed prisons attempt to control costs by regularly providing lower levels of staff benefits, salary, and salary advancement than publicly-run facilities (equal to about $5,327 less in annual salary for new recruits and $14,901 less in maximum annual salaries). On average, private prison employees also receive 58 hours less training than their publicly employed counterparts.  Consequently, there are higher employee turnover rates in private prisons than in publicly operated facilities.

Private prisons also shave costs by serving food that is less palatable than the fare served in public prisons (and that’s an impressive feat) and by cutting corners on medical care.  Bob Libal of Grassroots Organizing, told an NBC reporter that private prison companies like CCA have found ways to lock up only the better-behaved (and therefore cheaper) inmates leaving the much more expensive task of controlling the more violent prisoners to state and federal prisons.

In short, private prisons save money by cutting corners, period.  This means that, although private prisons tend to house a less violent subset of the prison population, inmates in private prisons are subjected to higher rates of violence.  Because private prisons pay less and offer fewer benefits than public prison systems, they suffer from high attrition rates.  To turn a profit, private prisons work hard to minimize the number of staff on duty at any given time.

The private prison industry has been driven by an ongoing evolution (or devolution) from Martin to Milton (from the philosophy of Martin Luther King to that of the libertarian Milton Friedman.  In the 1960s and 1970s, the political and legal communities were profoundly impacted by a civil rights movement symbolized by the leadership and oratory of Martin Luther King.  The link between crime and poverty was considered self-evident.  It was widely believed that violent crime was largely a product of social injustice and the role of government was to address issues like poverty and massive unemployment while providing legal counsel to indigent defendants.

But in the 1980s and 90s, as Martin evolved into an American saint, the influence of the civil rights movement waned while the small-government libertarianism of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School was in the ascendancy.  Ironically, Milton Friedman, the man, saw the war on drugs and mass incarceration as ill-conceived, big-government boondoggles.  But the notion that government programs designed to reduce poverty are doomed to failure led many to conclude that the only response to rising rates of unemployment and crime was to lock everybody up.  Since we couldn’t help poor urban neighborhoods, we had to control them, with military style tactics if necessary.   The great society programs of the 60s and 70s survived, but there was a growing belief that no one with a criminal record should benefit from any form of public assistance.

The private prison is a logical extension of this weird mix of punitive despair and anti-government rhetoric.  Think of the teaching of Jesus; then imagine its mirror image—that’s what we’ve been up to.  Not only is government incapable of improving the lot of the urban poor, the thinking goes, government can’t ever be trusted to lock folks up.  None of the states that have found a new enthusiasm for private prisons has weighed the advantages of a private system—it is considered self-evident that the private sector does everything better than the public sector.  Milton has triumphed.

In the last 1990s, the private prison industry was on the ropes.  Concern about immigration was on the rise in pre-nine-eleven America and immigration across the US-Mexico border was widely perceived as a problem.  A series of trade agreements during the Clinton years had changed the economies of Mexico and nations in Central America almost beyond recognition sending millions of dispossessed migrants to northern Mexico and the United States in an unending quest for work.

Initially, George W. Bush, a man who spoke passable Spanish in public at every opportunity, presented himself as a moderate on immigration and everyone was talking about the need for comprehensive immigration legislation.  These were lean times for the private prison industry.

Then 9-11 struck and everything changed.  Suddenly, George W. Bush was all about securing our borders and a paranoid nation was increasingly inclined to view immigrants, legal or otherwise, as terrorists.

In 2002, President Bush passed the Homeland Security Act dedicated to protecting Americans from terrorist threats of all kinds.  The Homeland Security Administration was an umbrella entity charged with keeping the U.S. safe from future terrorist attacks.  Agencies primarily concerned with immigration prospered under this new regime: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB).

Between 2001 and 2011, the United States poured a remarkable $589 billion into homeland security and the private prison industry was suddenly flush with cash. Immigrant removals — including deportations and so-called voluntary departures — went from roughly 200,000 people in 2001 to just under 400,000 in 2011.

But with the US economy still relatively strong, the undocumented immigrants just kept coming, their numbers growing from 8.5 million in 2000 to nearly 12 million in 2008.  With the advent of an economic recession, undocumented entry into the United States slowed dramatically, but the rate of deportation has continued unabated.

In phase one of the prison-industrial complex, incarceration continued to climb even while crime rates plummeted.  Now, with rates of undocumented entry falling fast, we are incarcerating and deporting more people than ever.  A prison-industrial complex can’t afford the luxury of common sense.

Two programs, Secure Communities (which has transformed local police officers into immigration officials) and Operation Streamline (a program that prosecutes every person entering the country without authorization) are particularly responsible for filling federal prisons and detention centers to overflowing.

Most of these inmates aren’t held for long.  The longest term is two years, and the average sentence is only twenty-one days; but the steady flow of deportees keeps the private prison industry humming.

Just as little towns like Tulia, Texas became dependent on the war on drugs and mass incarceration (the first phase of the prison-industrial complex), so little towns in South Texas, New Mexico and Arizona have become addicted to an exploding job market in arresting, detaining, processing and deporting unauthorized immigrants.

Then came the election of 2012 and the defeat of anti-immigrant zealots like the ill-fated Mitt Romney.  Suddenly the GOP is trying to mix a little Martin into its Milton martini.  Not a lot of compassion, mind you, just enough to win a few Latino votes in 2014.

Will this new mood last, and if it does, will it place the prison-industrial complex back on the ropes?  The private prison industry is fully aware that a turn to compassion and common sense would be ruinous.  The Annual Report of the Correction Corporation of America put the matter this way:

Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional detention facilities.  This possible growth depends on a number of factors we cannot control, including crime rates and sentencing patterns in various jurisdictions and acceptance of privatization.  The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices, or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.

In other words, end the war on drugs and the prevailing anti-immigrant hysteria and we’re out of business.

So if we think the prison-industrial complex is a really bad idea, what do we do?

Part of our problem is what I call the segregation of American moral discourse.  Put simply, a growing group of African Americans is concerned about the war on drugs, while a rising constituency within the Latino community is calling for compassionate immigration reform.  But here’s the rub:  Not enough Latinos are talking about the war on drugs, not enough African Americans are talking about immigration, and most Anglos give little thought to either issue.

This is why Friends of Justice, the non-profit I direct, is working to create a Common Peace Community that integrates the American moral discourse.  Just as Jesus Christ broke down the wall of partition separating Jews from Gentiles, so, in these last days, that same Jesus longs to obliterate the walls we have erected between the three largest ethnic tribes in America.  It won’t be easy to get this integrated conversation started, but if we want to say no to Milton and if we want to say yes to Martin, the integration of moral discourse is an absolute necessity.