The USA: Land of the incarcerated, home of the private prison industry

The fact that we have, by far, the most prisoners out of any country in the world is a problem. We incarcerate more people than huge autocratic nations like China, have more than double the amount of the strict Putin-led Russia, and imprison more than 2.5 times the amount of criminals than Mexico, Poland, England, Japan, Kenya, Turkey, Nigeria, Australia, Scotland, Ireland, Finland, Canada and India combined.

As a country of just 300 million on a planet of over 7 billion people, we put enough people in jail to make up nearly 25% of the world’s prison population. Over 6% of Americans will go to prison during the course of their lives. Can we really accept that 6% of us are criminals? And if so, why does this number far surpass that of our closest allies?

Since the Nixon administration instituted ‘The War on Drugs’ in 1971, there has been a 700% percent increase in incarcerations. Today, 29% of the U.S. Federal Prison population consists of drug offenders with no history of violence or high-level drug selling activity. But this is just the surface of an issue that deals with both corruption and the stranglehold that many corporations have on our entire political process.

Welcome to the private and for-profit prison industry. An industry that has to answer to its shareholders by generating as many prisoners as they can. But don’t take my word for it. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), who is the largest operator of private prisons in the U.S., explains: “We have been successful in substantially filling our inventory of available beds that we have constructed. Filling these available beds would provide substantial growth in revenues, cash flow, and earnings per share.”

So how do they ensure that they jail as many people as possible?  What is the business plan in this situation? Well, who better to answer that than the CCA again: “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by… any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration.”

It’s no wonder, then, why the CCA spends an average of $1.7 million for lobbying in Washington every year and in 2010 donated just shy of $450,000 to federal and state candidates who support the continuation of the drug war. They were also a major financial backer of the highly controversial 2009 anti-immigration law in Arizona.

And if you think these lobbying and donation efforts have little effect over politicians, consider this: 30 of the 36 co-sponsors of that immigration bill received donations from prison lobbyists or prison companies within 6 months after the bill was passed. And why wouldn’t they spend this kind of money on politicians? The 2009 anti-immigration law would’ve sent hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to prison and meant hundreds of millions of dollars in profits for the private prison companies that would incarcerate them.

Right now, America has more prisoners than all other developed nations combined. When we imprison non-violent drug offenders rather than send them to rehabilitation centers, and support bills that essentially legalize racial profiling on a large scale, can we seriously say the end goal is to make our country better? Whether we like it or not, private corporations don’t have our moral interests at hand. Perhaps it’s time Americans asked for a little more regulation.