Column: Why we need a law to stop private profiteers who thrive on mass incarceration

A guard escorts a man in an orange jumpsuit inside a detention facility
A guard escorts an immigrant detainee at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center, which is privately owned and operated by GEO Group, in 2013.
(Getty Images)

They don’t know where Kyle Rittenhouse is.

Jacob Blake, the Black man Kenosha police shot seven times in the back, was reportedly handcuffed to his hospital bed while fighting for his life. Meanwhile on Wednesday, Wisconsin prosecutors said they did not know the whereabouts of Rittenhouse, the white teenager accused of fatally shooting two men and wounding a third during a protest in support of Blake. Rittenhouse was released on bond after his supporters raised $2 million for his bail.

The last time I saw Rittenhouse, he was hanging out with members of the Proud Boys at a bar flashing a white power sign.

Indeed Marvin, it does make me wanna holler.

Criminal justice reform is a popular phrase right now, but anyone who understands the history of mass incarceration and the racism that created it recognizes that this project is more of a rebuild than reform.


This is why when President Biden signed the executive order phasing out contracts between the Department of Justice and private prison companies, the response from criminal justice reform advocates was understandably muted.

Biden’s order does not stop federal use of private immigration detention centers. It does not address private prisons on the state level. The estimated 12,000 to 14,000 people who will be transferred to a government-owned facility is minuscule compared with the 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in this country.

The effect of Biden’s gesture is limited, but it is still an important step in the rebuild. Now it is imperative that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) take the next step and introduce legislation to make this order the law. Here’s why.

The private prison industry is entirely dependent on government largesse. That means lobbying for contracts — and supporting politicians who can greenlight those contracts — is part of the cost of doing business. The result is a lobbying swamp that often leaves the poor and people of color drowning.

To no one’s surprise, Trump years were a boon to the private prison industry. Right after the Obama Justice Department announced in August 2016 its decision to phase out the federal government’s use of private prisons, industry stocks plummeted. But the day after Donald Trump was elected president, GEO Group, one of the largest private prison companies in the country, saw its stock increase 30% while its main competitor, CoreCivic, had a 40% increase. The groundwork for the comeback was laid in October 2016, when GEO Group hired two lawyers, Ryan Robichaux and David Stewart, for lobbying help.

Robichaux and Stewart were former aides of Jeff Sessions, one of Trump’s earliest supporters in Congress and his pick for attorney general. Within days of Sessions’ confirmation, Sessions rescinded the Obama administration’s directive on private prisons, reestablishing the partnership between the federal government and the private prison industry. GEO Group reportedly donated $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration fund, and a subsidiary also donated $225,000 to a pro-Trump super PAC. CoreCivic also donated $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration.


The industry’s political spending didn’t stop there. For example, according to the Dallas Morning News, a handful of members of Congress from Texas — Republican and Democrat — received significant campaign contributions from GEO Group. Texas, of course, is the epicenter of private immigration detention centers.

Yes, in terms of raw numbers, the direct impact of Biden’s executive order is small. But the signal to the private prison industry isn’t, which is why it will fight back — just as it did when the Obama administration dared to take it on.

This is why Congress needs to pass a federal law severing ties to the private prison industry. Right now the issue is being tossed around like a football from one administration to the next. Who knows who will win the White House in 2024, but we all know who will lose if it’s someone who prioritizes the interest of private prisons over reducing the prison population.

I’ve spoken to reform experts at the Brennan Center for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union who told me making the order a law would be extremely helpful, but it has not been a top agenda item for Congress. This was echoed by Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.), who was among the few members of the Congressional Black Caucus to vote against the 1994 crime bill.

“It can be a law and should be a law,” said Scott, whose SAFE Justice Act has strong support from Biden. “This just hasn’t been a top priority … [but] legislation can be passed.”

We now have a multibillion-dollar industry — both public and private prison systems — built around the overcriminalization of poor people and minorities. Over the last 40 years, the American prison population has increased 500%. But the immorality of profiting from incarceration is not wholly new. This goes all the way back to Southern states leasing out prisoners shortly after the Civil War; it was slavery by another name.

Yes, it will take decades to detangle this web we’ve spun. For example, in many rural areas around the country, prisons are the main source of employment. Decreasing the prison population could mean sending more people in economically depressed regions to the unemployment line.

But just because doing the right thing is hard doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

And considering how important Black and brown votes were to flipping the Senate and winning the White House, Democrats in Congress should be extra motivated to find as many legislative ways to reverse the effects of systemic racism as they possibly can.

Ending federal contracts for private prisons isn’t just about the fate of the estimated 14,000 incarcerated people affected. It is also about finding ways to get the $4.2 million the private prison industry spent on lobbying in 2020 alone out of politics. Congress needs to block this money trail between our justice system and companies that make money from imprisoning people.