Why Abe Lincoln Would Have Hated Private Prisons

February 10, 2017

Private prisons

Sixteen Candles

Happy Birthday, Abraham Lincoln! Today we tip our stovepipe hats to the sixteenth president of the United States, a leader who countered inequality with fairness, outrage with compassion, and injustice with bold action.

But as much as we’d like to stick to celebrating, we do have some bad news. The Great Emancipator would definitely be surprised by what’s being done with the Thirteenth Amendment in today’s America.

Lincoln gave his life for the cause of uniting the nation and ending slavery—but slavery in America still exists.


A Fight for Freedom

President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves being held in rebel territories, on September 22, 1862, reframing the Civil War as a fight for freedom.

The Thirteenth Amendment, meant to make good on the earlier proclamation’s promises, was ratified on December 6, 1865 (sadly, Lincoln did not live to see this day). The amendment reads:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

– excerpt from the 13th Amendment


Not What We Learned in School

When most of us learned about the Thirteenth in high school, we were told that it eradicated slavery. But let’s take a closer look at a phrase that somehow hides in plain sight right there in the middle of the paragraph: “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”


So…no slavery, except as a punishment for a crime?


Slavery by Another Name

While students and, for that matter, most other Americans never gave this wording much thought, you better believe that prison and criminal-justice officials have been taking advantage of this human-rights loophole for, roughly, 152 years.

As former President Obama said, in an address to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, “the United States is home to 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners.”

As that prison population has risen (from 357,292 in 1970 to 2,306,200 in 2014) it’s become ridiculously clear that racism plays a huge role in who gets locked up and for how long. Here are just a few of the facts:

  • African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.
  • Black men now make up about 40% of the total prison population (even though they represent only about 12% of the total US population).
  • Prisoners are often forced to work — frequently making products for major corporations — for pennies.
  • More black men, says author Michelle Alexander, are in prison today than were enslaved in 1850.

In short, mass incarceration has replaced slavery as a form of social control of America’s black population, who are still being used to fill the coffers of the for-profit prison system.


Prison as a Money-making Industry

The private prison industry got its start in 1983 with the founding of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). As incarceration rates skyrocketed over the past few decades, states and the federal government began to run out of room for all the new prisoners, and so they turned to CCA and others in the for-profit prison industry for help.

As of 2013, nearly 20% of federal prisoners and 7% of state prisoners were being held in private correctional facilities. (It should also be noted that about 73% of immigrants detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are being held in private facilities.)

The private prison industry makes a LOT of money. It’s a $5 billion industry, and profits are growing. That doesn’t happen by accident, of course: the industry spends millions each year on lobbying and political donations.


Incentivizing Incarceration

There are too many problems with the criminal justice system as it is. And now the expanding network of private prisons adds a new and unwelcome wrinkle: the profit motive. Private corporations make money off every new inmate.

To most of us, a declining prison population might seem like a positive thing: Hey, crime is down!

To for-profit-prison corporations, it represents a major challenge to their business model where cash is king.

That’s why those corporations can be found lobbying for stricter sentencing guidelines and a greater range of criminalized activities, anything to ensure that their cells stay full. Many companies even write “occupancy guarantees” into their contracts, where states would have to pay a fee if they cannot provide a certain number of inmates. Think about that for a second - holding states contractually obligated to incarcerate a certain number of people. Is that justice?

Isn’t that the exact opposite of what should be happening?


What Happened to Rehabilitation?

Of course, with all this money flying around, one thing tends to get lost in the cash-grab: the rights and needs of prisoners.

Not surprisingly, a recent review put out by the Department of Justice indicated that private prisons have more safety and security incidents than institutions run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. It’s also been shown that private prisons tend to hold inmates longer.

Private prisons promise lower costs and so are constantly looking to cut corners and reduce spending. That leads to hiring inexperienced (and low-paid) staff, not to mention a reduced emphasis on health, safety, and rehabilitation. Job-training services and education programs are often all but nonexistent, leaving prisoners less prepared for life outside prison walls and making it more likely that they’ll reoffend—and have to return to prison.

Which, of course, is something that makes prison corporations very happy.


A House Divided Against Itself

Obama announced last summer that the federal government would phase out its use of for-profit prisons. This order does not affect state or local prison populations, but many saw it as a hopeful sign that the industry would at the very least be under more scrutiny.

However, the new administration appears to have a very different approach.

Lincoln wrote, “Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves.” None of us should stand by while corporate CEOs are making billions of dollars on the backs of prisoners.

Join our friends Color of Change, here!

Help put an end to injustices in our criminal justice system.