U.S. prisons are expanded for all the wrong reasons

Last summer the federal government announced that there were more than 2.1 million people in prisons in the United States – nearly twice as many as were imprisoned just 10 years ago. In fact, while the United States has about 8 percent of the world’s total population, it incarcerates nearly 25 percent of the world’s imprisoned population.

Nationwide, the bulk of the newly incarcerated are young black people who have been convicted of nonviolent drug offenses and immigrants incarcerated under harsh new “counterterrorism” laws and policies.

Particularly affected are young black men. The United State incarcerates black men at a rate higher than South Africa under apartheid. More young black men are in prison or on parole than in colleges and universities. In Minnesota, which has a relatively low incarceration rate, blacks are locked up at rates 13 times higher than their rates in broader society.

Incarceration for profit

Sadly, what’s bad for youth and immigrants has become good for business – particularly companies such as the Corrections Corporation of America and the Geo Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections) that operate for-profit private prisons.

These firms use their considerable political influence not only to win lucrative contracts but also to insure a steady supply of bodies through the passage of mandatory minimum sentences and contracts with federal agencies such as the U.S. Marshal Service and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Beyond the moral dilemma posed by putting people in prison for money, it is increasingly clear that for-profit prison operators have a sordid history – including increased rates of inmate and guard violence.

Criminologist James Austin found that privatized prisons have 49 percent to 65 percent higher rates of violence against both inmates and guards. These effects largely come from cost-saving measures implemented to ensure a profit is made, such as cutting the number guards as well as their pay, and trimming programs for education and rehabilitation.

Education versus incarceration

At a time when administrators have to beg for scraps of funding increases reserved for expanding university systems, funding for prison expansion seems endless.

So it would seem odd that universities, especially in a time of tight budgets, would repeatedly do business with companies that directly finance prison construction. But that’s exactly what hundreds of schools, including the University, unwittingly do each time they use Lehman Brothers, Inc., to underwrite bonds issued for capital projects.

Here’s how it works: Whenever a school needs money it doesn’t have for a major project, such as construction of a building or renovations, it issues a bond underwritten by a company like Lehman for a substantial fee. These bonds and the underwriting fees are paid back through student tuition and fees, so students are directly pouring millions of dollars into Lehman paying back several bonds.

At the same time, Lehman has used its substantial influence to become the largest financier of for-profit prison corporations. Lehman has arranged deals for the three largest private prison corporations – the Corrections Corporation of America, the Geo Group and the Wackenhut Corp. (together worth more than $1 billion) – and in the process helped keep the troubled industry afloat.

Students nationwide, including those at the University, do and should continue to pressure their universities to sever ties with Lehman until it agrees to stop financing private prison corporations.

Bob Libal is a national student/youth organizer for Grassroots Leadership in Austin, Texas. Send comments to [email protected]