By James Clingman
A recent report by Jason Jenkins, Investment U Research, shows that private prisons are earning even more money via warehousing prisoners and by establishing Real Estate Investment Trusts (REIT) with the land upon which their prisons are built. Corrections Corporation of America and The GEO Group, the two largest private prison firms, own 75 percent of the for-profit prisons in the U.S. Both companies are registered on the New Your Stock Exchange as CXW and GEO, respectively. According Jenkins’ report, GEO “gets 60% of its revenue from company-owned or leased real estate.”
What an idea, huh? I often wonder why we are so slow on the uptake when it comes to dealing appropriately with issues we often rail against. Folks like Tony Brown, whom we seldom hear from these days, and Claud Anderson, are two examples of elders who have for 40 years or more been giving us solution-oriented information on this subject and many others. Yet, we have failed to heed their advice and participate in their initiatives.
Others – including Reginald Lewis, Tom Burrell, Bob Johnson, George Fraser, Michael Roberts, Julianne Malveaux, Brooke Stephens, among others – have shared practical ways for us to empower ourselves economically but their words, for the most part, have fallen on deaf ears.
What does this have to do with prison profits? Back in the latter part of Ronald Reagan’s administration and the early Daddy Bush term, the political mantra was “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” as was pointed out in a Time magazine article written by Jill Smolowe. Then, along comes Bill Clinton who tags right along by proposing that $20 billion be spent on new prisons in this country. So this is an issue that took legs more than 25 years ago.
Even further back, as Amos Wilson shared in his book, Black on Black Violence, “Within five years after the Civil War, the Black percentage of the prison population went from close to zero to 33%. Then, as now, the Black prison population performed an economic and political function for the benefit of Whites.” (Featured in the City Sun, July 18-24, 1990, and written by Clinton Cox, Racism: The Hole in America’s Heart.)
Fast forward to Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, in which her research shows that not much has changed. Once again, the alarm has sounded for many Black people, and we are fired up again about the so-called “Prison Industrial Complex” and all the money it is generating for its owners. I wonder how long it will be before we push the snooze button and go back to sleep on this issue.
We seem to get aroused and engaged in an issue only when it’s fashionable (I call it our crisis du jour), which is a very short period of time. Thus, our recent response to the prison issue is a microcosm of our laxity and, I might add, complacency when it comes to larger issues pointed out by those who have gone on before us, and those who are yet on the battlefield fighting for our economic freedom. We are riled up yet again by the prison money machine, but unless we resolve to do something about it, what does it matter?
In 1994 I wrote an article about this subject that pointed out the move by private corporations to take advantage of the several presidents’ attempts to jail our way out of crime. Remember the Three Strikes Rule? The War on Drugs? Individual states found themselves in a “cell crunch,” operating prisons beyond their capacity. The answer: Build more prisons and provide the developers with “guaranteed occupancy.” The result: prisons for profit – a billion dollar industry.
So what should we do? First, we should institute local and national boycott prisons campaigns, an initiative I called for in 2001 after having a discussion with Nathan Hare in Buffalo, N.Y. It was his idea, not mine, but I thought it was a fantastic idea and ran with it. T-shirts were printed, bumper stickers were made, placards and posters were developed to spread the word and to educate our people about the 13th Amendment, the criminal justice system, and alternative behaviors such as entrepreneurship. The theme was, “Stay out of the cells and get into sales.” There is a chapter on the subject in my last book. What it simply calls for is an end to doing stupid illegal things for which we can and will be sent to jail.
Second, since Black prisoners disproportionately occupy the cells, Black businesses should avail themselves of the tremendous opportunities for “sales” inside the prisons. Instead of always being the profit, we should start earning some of the profit from the prison industry. Can you imagine how much stuff prisons purchase each year?
I’ll end here because I know you get the point. In that Time article, Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, warned, “Building more prisons to address crime is like building more graveyards to address a fatal disease.” You know it’s all a game; on what side are you going to play?
Jim Clingman, founder of the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce, is the nation’s most prolific writer on economic empowerment for Black people. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati and can be reached through his Web site, blackonomics.com.