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I wonder what the big prison reform issue is going to be in 2018. As I see it, there are three categories of reform issues to watch: preincarceration (bail and sentencing), incarceration (overcrowding and rehabilitation), and postincarceration (reentry and employment). This post focuses on incarceration—more specifically, the retention of inmates in private prisons. I’ll make the pork bellies connection later.

I’ve written about the scourge of private prisons in prior posts. The issue is a hot one, and depending on the administration addressing the issue, the results are disturbingly incongruous. In Held Captive for Profit, I discuss the greed-driven workings of for-profit prisons in state and federal prison systems. I cite authorities and arguments from Huffpost for eradicating such institutions and the reasons private prisons are so bad and need to be put out of business:

  • For-profit prisons harm minorities
  • For-profit prisons abuse prisoners
  • For-profit prisons victimize immigrants
  • For-profit prisons profit from abuse and mistreatment
  • Prison industry money is corrupting the political process

The Obama Administration’s Reaction to Private Prisons

In August 2016, the Obama administration announced its plan to phase out for-profit federal prisons. In an August 18, 2016, memo, then deputy attorney general Sally Yates (who was later fired by President Trump for her refusal to support his Muslim travel ban) wrote, “They [private prisons] simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.”

Yates’s memo to the acting director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons concludes with this directive:

For all these reasons, l am eager to enlist your  help in beginning the process of reducing—and ultimately ending—our use of privately operated prisons. As you know, all of the Bureau’s existing contracts with private prison companies are term-limited and subject to renewal or termination. I am directing that, as each contract reaches the end of its term, the Bureau should either decline to renew that contract or substantially reduce its scope in a manner consistent with law and the overall decline of the Bureau’s inmate population.

The Trump Administration Resurrects Private Prisons

In a February 24, 2017, editorial, the New York Times squarely confronts Donald Trump’s policy on private prisons. President Trump views private prisons through the lens of profits and manipulated attorney general Jeff Sessions to scrap the Obama administration’s order to phase out the use of private prisons. According to another New York Times article, Jeff Sessions’ memo on the subject “directed federal prison officials to keep using the private prisons. He also withdrew a policy set out last August by Sally Q. Yates . . . to phase out the use of private facilities.”

The Second Trump Shoe Drops on Private Prisons

Trump’s new tax bill is a catalyst for bolstering real estate investments to grow private prison firms. Say what? According to a December 28, 2017, report in the Guardian, “individual investors in US private prisons are poised to collect their most lucrative earnings ever thanks to changes in the tax code . . . continuing what has been a banner year for the industry since the 2016 election.” The key components to this gift to an industry that should be quashed out of existence are real estate investment trusts (REITs).

Investopedia defines a REIT as “a pool of properties and mortgages bundled together and offered as a security in the form of unit investment trusts. Each unit in an REIT represents a proportionate fraction of ownership in each of the underlying properties.” In other words, smaller investors earn higher returns generated by real estate properties by participating in REITs.

I don’t get it. The Guardian  quotes Lauren-Brooke Eisen, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice, as saying “prison companies have essentially argued that renting out cells to the government is the equivalent of charging a tenant rent, thus making such business primarily a real estate venture.” This loophole logic makes the US government a slum lord of the worst kind. There is no greatness in a country’s capitalizing on prisoners, minorities, people retained in immigration-hell holds, and all the others who the Obama administration took affirmative steps to shield and protect. An eerie illness is permeating the current administration, which is rewarding investors from the misery of others.

The current president’s financial interests are driven by inhumane indifference—be it in his policies and statements regarding immigration, healthcare, the safety of the nation, the environment, consumer protection regulations, or a taxation policy that hurts the middle and lower classes. The Guardian hits the nail on the head in this instance in what I agree are Trump’s motivations about private prison investment opportunities. Trump is motivated by what’s good for his business cronies and rich constituents. He’s bent on scratching the backs of the wealthy with one hand while breaking the backs of the powerless with the other. The Guardian’s report includes this:

The tax bill gift to private prison investors [a 25 percent reduction in tax from 39.6 to 29.6 percent] mirrors the cosy relationship Trump has had with the industry overall. After years elsewhere, in 2017 the Geo Group [an organization owning an aggregate of more than 80 percent of private prison beds] hosted its annual leadership conference at the Trump National Doral golf club in Miami. The company also gave nearly half a million dollars to Trump through his inauguration committee and Super Pacs. Shortly thereafter, it secured the administration’s first contract for an immigration detention center, a deal potentially worth millions.

The Pork Bellies Connection

Investing in private prisons is a sick lure to me. The hides of humans drive the investment opportunities without regard for prison reform to incorporate necessary change. The more hides, the more profit; it’s as simple as that.

Zacks gives a simple primer on the pork bellies commodity stock market:

Because pork bellies were an unprocessed good that meatpacking plants were able to use to make bacon and other products, they began selling as commodities. As with all commodities, they were traded in standardized units: In this case, a unit consisted of 40,000-pound frozen slabs made up of eight- to 18-pound individual cuts of meat. This standardized contract allowed slaughterhouses, traders and food manufacturers an easy reference point to buy and sell mass quantities of pork bellies efficiently.

Let’s convert that into private prison language: people are chattel processed through the criminal justice system as commodities, produced year-round and warehoused in large numbers (and pounds) so investment traders can maintain an easy reference point (based on the flexibility and growth of prison populations) for buying and selling interests in the growth of housing costs for incarcerated people, most of whom cannot afford qualified legal counsel to defend their cases.

While not a perfect metaphor for equating investing in the perpetuation of human misery and in cuts of pork, I think my point is sharp enough to penetrate the absurdity of focused investments on herds of the powerless—as though they are faceless, marketable commodities and not incarcerated people who need attention in the form of prison reform relief.

This country’s prison population is out of control now and will continue to be as long as investors can play on an expectation of the country as an incarceration nation. Quoting senator Rand Paul (R-KY) on the subject: “Though only five percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, it is home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population. . . . Not only does the current overpopulated, underfunded system hurt those incarcerated, it also digs deeper into the pockets of taxpaying Americans.” (emphasis added)

Metrocosm reports that “worldwide, the United States’ prison population of 2.2 million is higher than any other country in the world. China is a not-too-distant second with 1.6 million prisoners. After that, no other country is even in the ballpark.” These data underscore the need to take action without encouraging financial gain for a few.

Eat bacon—invest in our fellow human beings.

Your comments and reactions are always welcome.

Image courtesy of 123rf

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