With COVID-19 and the Fight For Racial Justice Private Prisons Can Expect Greater Scrutiny


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COVID-19 and the death of George Floyd and other recent deaths by African Americans at the hands of the police have cast a sharper spotlight on racial inequality in the United States. But even before that, private sector prisons, and the for-profit incarceration industry had already been a target of activism and protests. In the coming days, weeks, and months the practice of profiting from incarceration can and should expect to be an increasing target for criticism and discussion.

In early May, Florida’s Tampa Bay Times ran an article entitled “ Florida prison operator with worst COVID-19 safety record has deep political roots: As the pandemic spreads in Florida’s prisons, private operators GEO Group, CoreCivic and Management & Training Corporation (MTC) are as influential as ever.”

The article described howtwo among the state’s seven state private contractor-run prisons had been among the first to experience significant outbreaks of the coronavirus. It argues that GOP political donations have insulated the for profit industry in the state against greater criticism and scrutiny, saying:

As has been reported over the years, private prison operators have showered the GOP and its dominant players — including Govs. Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio — with campaign money. Elected officials have in turn shown little interest in taking a hard look at the private prisons, except when proposing to increase their numbers, as nearly occurred during the Scott administration.

GOP officials and representatives of the for-profit prison providers operating in the state,  including Boca Raton based GEO Group, deny any impropriety and insist that there is a high level of oversight.

Nonetheless, the Times points out that GEO operated private prison facility Blackwater River  “fell under a harsh spotlight when it was revealed that all five of the first — and at the time only Florida inmates to succumb to COVID-19 — were incarcerated there. That was more deaths at one prison than in the entire state of California, which has the nation’s largest prison system.

Even as national contraction levels for COVID-19 have come down, prisons have emerged as a hot bed for contamination and spread of the disease. The June 22nd issue of the  New Yorker has a harrowing article about conditions inside the Arkansas Department of Correction prison unit, Cummins. There, a mostly black incarcerated population, many of them serving life prison sentences, are dealing with the onslaught of the illness and the social breakdown that it brings to their own social order.

New Yorker writer Rachel Aviv found most of the inmates she spoke to were reluctant to give their full names on the record, for fear of retaliation. One man, however, DeMarco Raynor was willing to speak for attribution.

When I asked Raynor why he chose to go on the record, he told me, “I want the men in here to know that someone they know was willing to sacrifice themselves for them.” The coronavirus crisis, he said, had brought to the surface what most inmates had previously only sensed. “I always knew in the back of my mind: You don’t care at all about us,” Raynor said. “It’s scary, because everything has come to fruition.” He sees the prison as a “microcosm of America, with its own ghetto and suburbs”—the East Hall and the West Hall. He worries that one misguided act from an officer will cause the men on the East Hall to start rioting again. He said, “We suffer from things that we didn’t even know we suffered from.”

Aviv points out:

Prisoners are hidden in most realms of life, but, when it comes to infectious disease, the harms of incarceration become visible: political leaders must reckon with the fact that prisons are part of our communities. The boundaries of penitentiaries are porous: inmates come in and out, as do officers, medical staff, venders, lawyers, and relatives. Diseases come in and out, too. The risk of tuberculosis, for instance, is twenty-three times higher inside prison walls—poor ventilation, social density, and minimal sun exposure are fertile conditions for the spread of disease—but cannot be contained within them. A 2015 study in Emerging Infectious Diseases found that in Dourados, a city in Brazil, more than half the cases of tuberculosis among people who had never been incarcerated were linked to strains of the disease inside the nearby prison.

Cummins is not a private prison, but the incarceration trends that have put pressure on private sector prisons are the same that have caused some stats, such as Florida and California, to rely more and more on the private sector prison industry. Even private sector prisons also rely on private sector goods and services.

Between 1980 and 2017 the number of people incardinated in America grew from just over half a million in 1980 to over 2.2 million by 2017 according to data from the International Center of Prison Studies. The Sentencing Project reports that the likelihood of a U.S. resident born in 2000 serving time in prison is one in three for African-American men, one in six for Latino men and one in 17 for white men. A major factor for the increase in incarceration since 1980 is higher sentences for drug related crimes.

Institutional investors are under increasing pressure to divest themselves from the for-profit prison industry. This includes divestment not just from publicly traded companies and Real Estate Investment Trusts (or REITS) including GEO, but private equity funds that are invested in the for-profit prison system. Last October members of Congress requested information from private equity firms invested in prison service providers. Investors and law makers alike can expect scrutiny of this topic to increase.