Believers Bail Out will work to free Muslims awaiting trial at Cook County Jail – America’s largest single-site detention center.

An end to a form of modern-day slavery

(RNS) The Justice Department’s move to phase out private federal prisons brings a welcome end to a moral and political crisis that has tested the very foundations of our democracy. It is a historic and courageous leap toward a more fair and equitable system of justice in our nation.

Private prisons are really sophisticated forms of modern-day slavery, through which predominantly African-American and Hispanic bodies are in bondage. The slave trading companies of the 17th and 18th centuries have been replaced with publicly traded companies like Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group Inc., and Management and Training Corporation.

Fueled by both federal and state-issued contracts, these companies have historically contributed heavily to Democratic and Republican campaigns, accelerating policies that have led to what author Michelle Alexander in her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” described as a class of permanently disenfranchised groups funneled in and out of federal and state-run private prison facilities.

For years, rights organizations have been struggling to bring attention to the ways in which the private prison lobby has had a dire influence on the criminal justice system and immigration policies. It has pushed for lengthy sentencing guidelines, warehousing inmates as opposed to rehabilitation, and stop-and-frisk policies contributing to an endless sea of mostly black and brown bodies behind bars of shame.

Under the banner of so-called “get tough on crime” legislation arising out of the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, the private prison industry’s campaign has taken a huge toll on economically depressed communities, which often fall victim to unfair policing, sentencing and imprisonment.

So, the recent decision by the Justice Department to abandon its use on the federal level is a hard-fought victory in the struggle for broader prison reform, the abolition of mass incarceration and the criminalization of immigrants in American society.

The decision is not a surprise, because the Obama administration has long been ambivalent about private prisons.

Organizations such as Amnesty International have been calling on both Democratic and Republican party leaders to dismantle them not only because of the deplorable conditions, but also because of the inherent problem of attaching dollars and market-driven stocks to the housing and incarceration of human bodies. The practice began in the late 1990s under the failed policies of the Clinton administration, which contributed to prison overcrowding across the nation and in federal detention centers.

The Justice Department’s step is important, but now is the time to also end the use of private prisons by states and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well.

As a faith leader committed to justice, reconciliation, and building a stronger nation, I applaud the Justice Department’s decision to begin washing its hands of the blood money of private prisons -- a decision that is in the interest of public safety and the common good.

Let us now work passionately to address the problems that led to the rise of the prison industrial complex in the first place -- access to good jobs, quality education, housing, fair sentencing guidelines, and health care -- and create a society where human beings are not traded like stock options on Wall Street.

(The Rev. Johnny Bernard Hill is an author and advocate for justice, reconciliation and human rights)


  1. The whole idea of privatizing corrections was short sighted in the first place. Corrections are not a matter of goods and services. While no form of incarceration functions with absolute precision and administration of justice, such operations are clearly a function of the properly limited operations of government. Any state which does not follow the Federal government in this adjustment will be in error.

  2. It was part and parcel with the ridiculous notion that everything government handles is better don’t by private industry. Usually also followed by a boatload of bribes and influence peddling with local politicians. Libertarian nonsense.

    What that crowd feels to acknowledge is success in businesses is usually built upon government run infrastructure and the ability to socialize losses. Even Ayn Rand took government benefits when it suited her

  3. Not much different from John Stossel criticizing federal flood/hurricane insurance programs for homes built in essentially untenable areas, then (as he did) buying such a home and availing himself of the very program he decried.

  4. “Private prisons are really sophisticated forms of modern-day slavery,”

    Question: Does it STOP being slavery when a government does it??

  5. Kinda. The government isn’t trying to profit off the efforts of incarceration.

  6. Sounds like blind faith to me.

    Of course the people running public prisons are motivated primarily by self-interest.

  7. The 13th Amendment reserved slavery as a state institution, thus founding the modern prison industry. Around it has accrued a very sizable slice of the public dollar – equivalent to what Defense gets in the federal budget. This includes police, courts, and human monitoring agencies. All at the expense of real rehabilitative and mental health services as well as true economic development for urban communities of color – communities we now know that were intentionally created as ghettos and stripped of economic and educational resources.

  8. Like every other civil servant. It’s called salary, benefits and petty authority. But no piece of budget surpluses. At least not legally.

  9. But the budget surpluses do not magically disappear because the project is state-run. The state, ultimately, makes the profits.

    Or do you seriously argue that, say, the slave labor used to build the Great Wall of China was in fact NOT slavery just because the profits went to the Qin State and not any individual Qin bureaucrat (at least not legally)??

    Forced incarceration and labor sounds like slavery to me, regardless of how you choose to try to pretty up the concept to justify it to yourself.

  10. “But the budget surpluses do not magically disappear because the project is state-run. The state, ultimately, makes the profits.”

    Not really. Its just the state getting its own funds back.

    “Or do you seriously argue that, say, the slave labor used to build the
    Great Wall of China was in fact NOT slavery just because the profits
    went to the Qin State and not any individual Qin bureaucrat (at least
    not legally)??”

    They made profits off that?!?!?! The Great Wall of China is the ultimate example of wasteful government spending. It was largely a budget sinkhole for generations. Taking up massive resources, manpower and materiel just to maintain. Worst of all, it didn’t even do what it was intended to do.

    “Forced incarceration and labor sounds like slavery to me, regardless of
    how you choose to try to pretty up the concept to justify it to

    I would rather prisoners not be performing labor which can be turned into a profit as well. We agree on something!

    In most cases they are simply performing functions to keep the prison going (laundry, physical plant, landscaping).

  11. Maybe. At some point mid 1950’s government hired independent people to come into the prisons and teach school to inmates. They worked in laundry, kitchen, etc. for experience training for a future job. Education and job training, schedules, rules. They were paid a very small amount. At release they were given the money and a paid bus ticket back home. Today private system put inmates to work without pay nor do they spend money on instructors, teaching reading, addiction treatment, rehab programs or anything construed to lower the recidivism rate.

    The public votes on building more facilities and the public pays the cost of building them equipping and running them. You pay the private corps. There are only 2 corps which run all of your prisons and most jails. How do the private corps. get paid? Through your courts where the Judges, DA’s, Defenders, Bailiffs, Recorder, Records, security and large staff are all paid per conviction as in for each charge. Our govt. doesn’t pay the courts salaries and operating costs if you go free. You see the poor convicted because they can’t afford an independent defense lawyer the Judge may agree with. Public Defenders get paid if you are convicted. The deals are cut before they enter the court; Judges ask for the DA’s recommendation. The Public Defender agreed to a lesser sentence-the famous plea bargain. Lucky you. Lucky court, You do less time perhaps and the people who put you in all get paid for each conviction of you, the private prison corps get paid by your taxes and

    it’s big big business. Go online, check the 2 names above on the NY Stock Exchange of the 2 corps and look at the profits. They’re doing well. And they promote and love the revolving door policy. Because they’ve zero investment zero cash outlay; you the taxpayer
    buy the land, build the building and pay for the court system that keeps sending them inmates to charge you for the care of each one. They love the long sentences and long parole releases. The private corps are making money on your investment which is intended to be a negative cash flow for you and a constant flow of released inmates who don’t read, don’t have an education, don’t have work training.

    Inmates are the ‘staff’ that does the janitorial, grows the vegetables, cleans, does the laundry, cooks the food without pay. Paid staff with badges oversee the unpaid workers who go out the same door they later come back in by insuring sentences include long years of parole which send you back if you get a traffic ticket, forget a parole meeting, or are found in the company of people drunk or doing drugs even if you’re clean. Have you ever been jailed or imprisoned for being clean but a person with you was drunk, even in a private home? Did you ever forget an appointment and get sent to prison for years not months? I agree with Obama on nothing. Zero. I count the days till he’s gone. But this is the first social -economic change he’s ever done right. In my book.

    Dr. Carl Hart wrote the book “High Price”. Hart is Black, from a bad neighborhood, tough family, did the drugs and time, returned and saw the system for the problem it is. He managed to overcome, is respected in this field of reform and wrote an intelligent book. Obama met with him and listened. As far as I know Obama hasn’t publicly mentioned Hart’s years of work or given him credit.

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