Prisons in America have always been at the root of systemic racism targeted at the African American community. As America grew, it began developing into a vast system that would disenfranchise anyone seen as an ‘other’ in America.
This is a look at the dark beginnings and dirty dealings of America’s prison system and how it grew into a business entity; thriving on the incarceration of individuals as long as possible.
Profiting from prisoners.
A Little Background
The prison system in the United State became widely used after the Revolutionary War, however, it wasn’t a system based on parole, probation, and sentencing until after the Civil War.
After the Civil war, peonage and debt bonding also became very common. The Civil War effectively freed slaves throughout the South. But sadly, this freedom was denied to them in ways that circumvented the law.
Each state in the South wrote new laws that made it commonplace to arrest black people for little to no reason and then force them into a new type of servitude called peonage.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the South was in ruins. Financially, the economy of the Southern states was devastated. Unable to find ways to continue forward without the free slave labor, upon whose backs the South had initially been built upon, Southern states found more creative ways to get their slaves back.
Plantation and business owners found a solution to solve their labor woes that would also put the negro back where the Southern white society believed that they belonged — controlled as slaves. The US federal government largely turned a blind eye, having no desire for another civil war.
In these practices of peonage and debt bonding, even children could be taken into custody and be separated from their families . This type of peonage/debt bonding could pass slavery down to other generations. A family caught in this cycle had very little recourse or way to get out of the cycle.
Below is a sack, given to nine-year-old Ashley, when she was taken from her mother, into debt bonding. You can see the text added to the sack, having been passed down to Ashley’s granddaughter, Ruth Middleton, in 1921.
It should come as no surprise, then, to say that the South was not only built by black slaves but it was also rebuilt after the war by black slaves as well. New laws were written and labeled “Black Codes” that the free negro must follow or forfeit their freedom.
Through a prisoner leasing programs that allowed prisons to lease their prisoners to labor on plantations and in factories, many black people found themselves living lives no different than prior to the Civil War.
“Even children could be taken into peonage, separated from their families as a form of debt bonding. This could pass slavery down to other generations.”
Peonage continued on until the early 1900s, with Washington DC largely turning a blind eye. In fact, in 1906, John W. Pace of Alabama (considered the father of Southern peonage of blacks) was pardoned for his deeds of peonage slavery by his personal friend, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
It wasn’t until the 1920 when child labor laws started to come into question that peonage and debtors prison sere done away with, arguably only because they also impacted poor whites.
Fast Forward to Today
The system that we have today was born from those early days of the prison system that was skewed against the black community. After the expansion in the 1970s, at a time when the War on Drugs was also declared and marijuana made illegal, there was no doubt that America’s prison system was about profit.
Since that declaration, the US prison system has grown by more than five times the size it was in 1973. It should come as no surprise that the vast majority of people in prison are minorities.
In any given year, approximately 7 million persons are under the supervision of correctional facilities, either on probation or held in facilities. As of 2020, there are physically 2.3 million people held in prisons, with an additional 4.5 million people on parole/probation today.
- The total population in the United States is roughly 330 million people.
- In 1920, the percentage of Americans incarcerated was only .01 percent.
- By 2020 that number is fast-approaching a full 1% of the population, currently at .7%. When you realize that the population of America in 1920 was only 106 million people, then you realize that dramatic rise it has taken to reach .7% incarceration today. Indeed, it would have been nearly a quarter of the total population in prison. Today, .7% is equal to 23-million people. The entire US population in 1920 was only 106-million people.
- In 2020, the number of Americans in prison accounts for 22% of the entire world prison population, despite the US only having approximately 4% of the world’s total population, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.
- The current population of blacks in prison is 37% of the total incarcerated population despite accounting for just 12.7% of the total US population.
Billboards could be seen at one time in America that read, “Welcome to America, home to 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners.” The numbers have dropped slightly, but this hasn’t impacted minority communities to speak of. That’s right, the drop was largely impactful to white Americans.
One might begin to question “Home of the Free” for any American but most especially for minority men and women.
The above is a photo of Rodney King and one of the white police officers in LA who beat him nearly beyond recognition. Mr. King was driving drunk and had attempted to elude police.
After being stopped, instead of detaining him and simply arresting him, he was brutally beaten, sparking riots in Los Angeles and all over the United States. The year was 1991, but much had led up to this point and much would come after.
What was the drastic change in the 1970s that caused the number of minority arrests to begin to skyrocket? In 1971, Richard Nixon declared war on drugs.
Coincidentally – or not – the United States also began privatizing juvenile correctional facilities at about this same time. This was an experiment that proved profitable. Getting them into the system at a younger age almost assured that they’d be prisoners of the system for life, in and out of jail.
Within a few short years, prisons were overflowing. Following that, came the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. For the last 25 years, America has had private prisons, run as businesses, to handle “overflow” from the already established prison system.
Some states have begun to close these privatized prison systems down due to the blowback that happened when the public began to take note.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are now 1.6 million total state and federal prisons in the United States.
128,195 prisoners are now housed in private, for-profit prison facilities. This number has grown by 37% between 2002 and 2009.
There are 66 facilities owned by Corrections Corporations of America, now known as Core Civic after changing their name in 2016 but their policies remain the same.
This is the largest for-profit company in the United States. There are 91,000 beds in Core Civic facilities, currently spread across 20 US states.
The total revenue reported by CC in 2011 was $1.7 billion dollars. Lobby expenditures by CC, as reported by The Center for Responsive Politics, was $17.4 million dollars over the last ten years.
Even further damning is the statistic for the amount of money contributed to political campaigns by CCA from 2003 to 2012: $1.9 million. The CEO, Damon T. Hininger, was paid an executive salary in 2011 of $3.7 million dollars.
One might think that peonage and profiteering from the prison system has only changed from the 1800s in that it has now spread beyond the South. It still largely targets black communities to help fill beds and make money.
The GEO Group is the second-largest for-profit private detention company in the US. Their total revenue, according to their own annual report in 2011 was $1.6 billion dollars. They own 65 facilities with over 65,000 beds currently.
The Center for Responsive Politics reports that The Geo Group has spent over $2.5 million dollars in lobbying in the last eight years.
The National Institute on Money in State Politics reports that from 2003 to 2012, The Geo Group spent $2.9 million dollars in political contributions. Their CEO, George C. Zoley earned a paycheck of $5.7 million dollars in 2011.
The company was ordered to pay a fine of $1.1 million that was levied in November of 2011 by the New Mexico Department of Corrections for inadequate staffing.
The state of New Mexico began fining Geo Group $150,000 per month and in July of 2019, Geo Group announced that they would pull out of the state of New Mexico.
They are currently still appealing another judgment for damages awarded in a wrongful death lawsuit from last June. An inmate was beaten to death by his cellmate at an Oklahoma prison.
The judgment was awarded for $6.5 million dollars but the company had filed an appeal but lost that appeal. There are many other lawsuits filed against this company, per SourceWatch.org.
Statistics on black deaths in prison are nearly impossible to get a realistic count for. Many years have gone by in which these statistics were not tracked, conveniently. The system is a complete cluster of what begins to feel like purposely dropped balls and skewed numbers that aren’t correct or checked. This article at Journalism Resources goes into a head-spinning account of the violations and ways in which numbers have been kept out of the public eye. This is not only frightening, but it also points a finger directly at America’s prison system and how it has been built upon the disenfranchisement of the black population.
Up next, Part 2 – What This Means To America