You’ll find it difficult to have an objective conversation about prisons in America. Are they necessary evils? Are they lucrative business ventures? Are they ushering in a new version of legalized slavery? It’s an incendiary subject for several reasons. Firstly, most everyone has been touched by crime in one way or another. Then, there’s the fact that many people feel those convicted of a crime deserve whatever’s coming to them. Finally, there’s the fact that at the end of the day, the stock and trade of prisons is human life; human life that is considered tainted, but human life all the same. Let’s try though, to examine the state of private and for-profit prisons in regards to both prisoners and the laws of everyone else.

A Short History Lesson

One of the biggest strikes against private prisons is that about 35 years ago they didn’t exist. It’s not the relatively short existence that is the problem, it’s what it coincides with that matters. Private prisons sprung to life from opportunity created by the war on drugs; something that is still controversial to this day. Non-violent drug offenses were sending people to prison in record numbers. The government needed a place to put them all and companies pounced upon the opportunity. It took just six years to get 67 for-profit prisons up and operational around the country. Private prisons still make up a small percentage of overall incarcerated populations. However, it is their rate of growth that is unsettling. In 15 years, between 1990 and 2005, the population of private prison rose 1600%.

Changing Tide

In the years since the war on drugs began, public opinion on the endeavor has soured dramatically. Many states have even ratified legalization of marijuana for recreational use, with many more in the process and more still on the way. Private prisons are not very happy about these changes and neither are the politicians they support. People are in jail right now for crimes that are no longer illegal. It raises the question, “Why was illegal in the first place?” One of the proposed theories is that the war on drugs feeds the prison industrial complex, as it has come to be known. Prisons offer a free (or cheap) labor force of people with little to no freedom. What’s worse, because many people don’t particularly care how convicted felons are treated, the few basic human rights they do have are easily trampled on and cast aside.

Double Standard

As uncomfortable as it is, most of the people affected by the war on drugs are lower income minorities. The reasoning being, those are the ones committing the crimes. Why then, is it criminal behavior when it comes to relatively inexpensive narcotics, but it is a sickness/crisis when it comes to more expensive opioids? The fact that the majority of opioid abuse comes from more affluent demographics seems to be a major contributing factor. While questions like these are often dismissed as being “playing the race card” no real answer is ever put forth to explain the disparity. It leaves one to assume that the country, even the private prisons and politicians that they support, are more comfortable seeing certain kinds of people lost to the prison system than they are others. That doesn’t seem fair.