Prison Punishment as Profitable Business

     Most states and the federal government have greatly increased the number of convicted offenders sentenced to prison.  Legislators added more offenses to those requiring prison time and increased the length of prison sentences.  “Getting tough on crime” through more incarceration results in overcrowded prisons.  Despite a boom in new prison construction in the last 35 years, many states and the federal government have turned to the private sector for more prison beds.  Private, for-profit prisons are a booming industry.

          Information from “The Sentencing Project”  shows that private prisons in the United States incarcerated 128,063 people in 2016, representing 8.5% of the total state and federal prison population. The number of people housed in private prisons has increased 47% since 2000.


          States vary in the use of private correctional facilities. New Mexico incarcerates over 40% of its prison population in private facilities, and Texas incarcerated the largest number (13,692) of people in private facilities. Nearly half of the states (23) do not employ any for-profit prisons. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that 27 states and the federal government incarcerated people in private facilities run by corporations including GEO Group and Core Civic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America).

          The 47% increase in private prison commitments compares with just a 9% increase in the overall prison population increase in the U.S.  In six states, the private prison population has more than doubled. The federal prison system showed a 120% increase in use of private prisons since 2000, reaching 34,159 people in private facilities in 2016.  Border patrols have incarcerated 26,249 immigrants –73% of those detained—in privately-run facilities in 2017.  The private immigrant population grew 442% since 2002.  (See the ).

       Criminologists, correctional experts, and administrators of many state departments of corrections are critical of private prison corporations and refuse to contract for their services.  Major arguments against private prisons are that they are not less expensive than state institutions; lower qualifications and salaries for line staff; and any cost reduction is by reducing corrections staff which jeopardizes adequate supervision and safety.  

Churches Call for Abolishing Private Prisons

          The Presbyterian Church [PC(USA)] has studied the operation and overall costs of private prisons in America. Based on the findings the General Assembly meetings of the denomination (in 2003 and in 2012) passed resolutions to abolish state and federal contracts with private prison corporations

          The denomination’s recommendations against private prisons include:

  • Ban interstate commerce in private prisoners.
  • Ban construction of speculation prisons.
  • Ban use of private prisons to house juveniles.
  • Prevent renewal of current state, county, and city contracts with for-profit private prison corporations.

          The church’s arguments against private prisons are that:

  • Having the private sector own and operate jails and prisons is an unfair monopoly and therefore undemocratic.
  • In a democratic society, there are certain functions that should never be operated for profit.
  • Contracting with the private sector for jails and prisons is no more appropriate than for operating police departments or the court system.

          The church’s recommendation for abolishing the use of private jails and prisons argues that some things that should never be bought and sold in the marketplace include the powers to:

  • Take away another person’s freedom.
  • Separate them from other human beings.
  • Prevent them from communicating in any way with others.
  • The use of physical force against them, up to and including deadly force.
  • These are the powers invested in those who operate jails and prisons, whether public or private.

      Prison administrators and wardens of nearly half of the states appear to agree with the church’s arguments, refusing to contract with private prison corporations for incarcerating convicted offenders. 

       Besides ethical arguments, what other reasons might be turning many states from accepting the lobbying efforts and offers of private prison corporations?    We will explore some of the untold stories of private prisons, hidden costs, and documented abuses of power in our next weblog.     Stay tuned!

Tags                 The Sentencing Project 

Beating Gun Violence

A new book addresses a major epidemic in our country that touches the lives of nearly every American.  The authors, Shane Claiborne & Michael Martin, are gun owners, avid hunters, and sport shooters. They address the problem of gun violence from a balanced perspective, without pitting one group against another.  They include facts, statistics, and the history of gun manufacturing, sales, and ownership to support their conclusion that America can and must do more to reduce gun violence. 

   A unique contribution of the book is how the authors document a growing movement to put into practice the words of two prophets from the Hebrew (Old Testament) Bible.  I was drawn to this book for the biblical and religious perspective on addressing gun violence.          “They shall beat their swords into plowshares…”         (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3).


      In the book (published by Brazos Press in 2019) Claiborne and Martin document the activities of an organization called RAWtools (“RAW” is “war” reversed).  The authors had a friend who owned several guns, including an AK-47. Following the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary he began questioning why we have assault rifles on our streets.  They met with a blacksmith and learned how to create garden tools from that AK-47, and RAWtools was born.  Thus began a campaign to collect assault weapons and other unwanted firearms and turn them into shovels, rakes, and other garden tools.  “Beating” guns is about reducing gun violence; and about literally “beating guns” heated to more than 2,000 degrees on a blacksmith’s anvil, reforming them into tools as described by the prophets Isaiah and Micah.

          The authors do not claim to represent the views of members of the National Rifle Association (NRA); but they note that the NRA represents fewer than 5 percent of gun owners.  As gun owners themselves they take a position like that of the NRA in the 1960s which supported the Gun Control Act of 1968 and focused on sportsmen, hunters and target shooters and had little to do with political opposition to gun control.

          Claiborne and Martin see changes as evidenced by a recent survey in which 74 percent of NRA members supported universal background checks on all gun sales (compared to 84 percent of all gun owners and 90 percent of all Americans—p. 78).* In addition to the biblical and religious perspective on “beating guns,” other highlights of the book are the history of gun manufacturing and ownership which authors highlight with statistical data.  *(Page numbers correspond with the Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader version of the book.) 

Oversupply and Overdemand
<>We manufactured an average of 9,458,172 guns annually in the US from 2012 to 2015.
<>That’s 25,912 per day.   <>That’s 1,079 per hour.  <>That’s 17.9 per minute.
<>That’s 1 gun every three seconds (p. 43)

Enough guns? Or too many guns?  <>We have about 300 million guns in the U. S.            <>That’s about one per person.  <>Each year millions of new guns are added to the arsenal.  <> In 2016, a record 27 million guns were sold (p. 43).  

We have a problem: we’re addicted to guns.  <> 32% of US households have guns.
<> 3% of the US population owns half of the 300 million guns.  <> That’s an average of 17 guns each.  <>  Nearly 2/3 of our guns are owned by 20% of gun owners.
<>  61% of gun owners are white men (white men make up just 32% of the population).
<>  Where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths (p. 43).

More Gun Facts  <> The US has 5% of the world’s population, but 42% of the world’s privately held guns.  <>  There are 170,000 guns for sale online.  <>  There are nearly five times more licensed gun dealers in the US than there are McDonald’s restaurants.
<>  Guns kill 38,000 people per year & over half are suicides.  <>  Over 100 people die from guns every day in America.  <>  There are 73,000 gun-related injuries each year in America.  <>  There are over 400,000 crimes involving guns per year.  <>  The US has 29 gun homicides per million people (#1 in world).  <>  Of all children killed by guns in the world’s developed nations, 87% are US children (p. 44).

Records on Gun Sales  <>  The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) keeps records of all gun sales through licensed dealers but must destroy them after 90 days (a 2001 law).  <>  The ATF can check gun dealers for illegal sales, but only once a year.  Just 5% of gun shops are responsible for 90% of guns used in crimes, but ATF can’t release that information publicly.  <>  The ATF isn’t allowed to have computers or develop a national database, so by a law pushed by the NRA they have thousands of boxes of paper records (p. 91).  

Registration? <> In the US, we register births, marriages, divorces, deaths, houses, land, trucks, boats, and animals—everything but guns (p. 92).  

Dangerous, with weapons?  <> Folks on the no-fly list can still buy weapons. <>  From 2004 to 2010, persons on that list had background checks 1,228 times; and 1,119 (91%) were approved—only 109 denied.  <> You can’t fly on an airplane if considered “dangerous” but you can still buy weapons (p. 94).  

Rights vs. Responsibilities     “We are better at protecting the Second Amendment than the Ten Commandments, one of which is “You shall not murder” (Deuteronomy 5:17); and Jesus’s declarations in the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5), one of which is “Blessed are the peacemakers” (p. 139).