By Tyler Kwon
Most Americans view slavery as a shameful institution of this nation’s past, long-abolished and only alive today as a memory that represents of what happens when human compassion gives way to greed, ignorance, and severe moral indifference. People never fail to be disturbed by the fact that the American government once stood by while human lives were treated like pieces of property meant to be bought, sold, and exploited, all for the benefit of their owners.
However, what many fail to realize is that slavery did not end with emancipation in the nineteenth century. Rather, slavery persists in the present day in many unjust, albeit nuanced forms. One of the newest and most profitable of these forms is private prisons: facilities run or owned by private companies that house convicted felons.
Despite an overall decrease in crime since the 1990’s, American incarceration rates have continually grown independent of crime rates in recent decades due to increased efforts to strike down on nonviolent drug offenders in the country. As a result, today the United States comprises five percent portion of the world population and yet more than 20 percent of the global prison population, making the country the largest jailer with the highest imprisonment rates on earth, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Unsurprisingly, these high imprisonment rates have led to overcrowding in many state and federal prisons nationwide, which is where private prisons enter the picture.
Private prisons appeal to the government by offering to house prisoners, thereby relieving state and federal expenses, as well as reducing overcrowding. While the American government has sought to reduce excessive strains on public prisons, and thus provide inmates with better quality of life and work opportunities, it has failed to recognize that doing so has led to the complete dehumanization of those within the prison system.
The hidden benefit to private prison corporations lies in the fact that just like slaves, their inmates are seen as an exploitable source of highly inexpensive labor. The largest for-profit private prison company in the country, Corrections Corporation of America, includes terms in business contracts that guarantee states will supply its prisons inmates for 20 years and maintain 90 percent occupancy rates during this time frame, according to Sourcewatch.
Such commitments only incentivize the increased and lengthened imprisonment of criminal offenders, especially for relatively minor and nonviolent crimes like illicit drug possession. This fuels a high nationwide incarceration rate.
Prisoners of color, specifically black men, often find themselves suffering intensified racial discrimination and extended sentences, with Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) stating that six percent of all African American males ages 30-39 exist within the American prison system.
Despite these facts as well as widespread bipartisan opposition to government support of private prison corporations, the private prison population has grown 90%, from 69,000 prisoners to 131,300 between 1999 and 2014, according to BJS.
Hence, the private prison system preys on the prisoners, often socioeconomically disadvantaged, in order to exploit them for monetary gain. In this context, human beings are stripped of their dignity and worth to provide their labor for the profit of major companies.
For example, Microsoft subcontractor Exmark used prisoner labor to shrinkwrap Microsoft products and until just recently, Whole Foods employed prisoners from Colorado Correctional Industries to make some of its products for 73 cents to four dollars a day, according to the Associated Press.
Private prison labor is rarely voluntary and any opposition can often lead to added sentences and severe punishments. Criminal or not, no human being deserves to suffer unfair punishments and demeaning work without proper payment.
While the Obama administration and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have promised to end the renewal and signing of contracts with private prisons on the federal level due to this fact, states can still choose to opt out of this policy and continue to fund and support this form of modern day slavery.
Beyond government intervention lies the necessity of public awareness and a simple sense of humanity among the American people to end the cruel, dehumanizing enslavement of individuals within the United States jail system.