By their very nature, prisons are something that is kept out of sight. The community doesn’t want to notice them and those housed within prisons have been temporarily (although in many cases the effects of incarceration remain long after release) removed from society. This out-of-sight nature makes it difficult to find out information about conditions in prisons. Beyond government statistics and agencies, it can be difficult to find out what happens inside prison walls.
This lack of transparency has accelerated in recent years as the number of privately run prisons–often with even more limited forms of disclosure–has risen. Private prisons have appeared in response to mass incarceration in the United States, with over two million people in prison. Private companies have realized that there is a fortune to be made in housing prisoners.
However, it isn’t just through the construction of private prisons that companies are making money from mass incarceration. Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration looks at the other ways in which corporations are profiting from the prison boom. The book is the third in a series that look at unprecedented increase of mass incarceration since the 1980s. The others include Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor and The Celling of America: An Inside Look at the US Prison Industry.
Prison Profiteers features eighteen essays divided into three sections–“The Political Economy of Prisons,” “The Private Prison Industry,” and “Making Out Like Bandits.” The essays expose a host of problems with the prison system ranging from inadequate prison care to misuse of public funds. All of the examples share the same motivation: profit. The essays on the prison healthcare system were particularly striking, with distributing examinations of horrific healthcare given to inmates by companies such as Correctional Medical Services. In some cases, this grossly negligent care has resulted in unnecessary deaths. The book spends a significant amount of time on the increasing number of private prisons, looking at problems and the companies behind them. In one particularly interesting chapter, Samantha Shapiro reports on the increase of evangelical Christian programs in prisons. These programs–of which Prison Fellowship Ministries is the largest–are sold to prisons as a way of minimizing violence and improving prisoner behavior. While they have had some success, the author raises important questions about the ethics of these programs. The book looks at lesser known ways in which private companies profit from mass incarceration as well, including prisoner transport, prison phone service, and jail fees.
Prison Profiteers also looks at the relationship between the growth in the private prison industry and the growth in prisoners, finding that the correlation doesn’t always work as one might expect. Logic would seem to indicate that private prison companies have grown as the number of prisoners grow, however, in some cases it appears that the privatized prison services companies–many of which often have close relationships with governments–are in some ways fostering an increase in the number of prisoners.
Overall, Prison Profiteers sheds light on an issue that many likely have not considered, while offering a larger critique of the prison system as a whole.
Tara Herivel and Paul Wright, Eds., Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration, (The New Press, 2008).