Prison Privatization and Youth of Color: What Are The Implications?

~ This is the second post of a three-part blog series on the criminalization of people of color and the private prison industry by students at Occidental College.

Society’s View on Privatizing Juvenile Facilities

Whether the industry explicitly says it benefits from the school-to-prison pipeline or not, its recent development of juvenile facilities speaks to its motives. By creating juvenile facilities, the industry has a wide range of ages to fill their facilities. Many do not recognize the implications of privatizing juvenile facilities, mainly because mainstream media does not provide viewers with this information. In the “Kids for Cash” scandal, the media hardly addressed the thousands of lives destroyed by privatization; instead, it focused on the judges’ actions and their impending prison sentences. In addition, it did not at all address the owners of the private juvenile facilities who initially bribed the judges. Not surprisingly, the facilities involved are still fully operating.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Gaffke Photography v2.8

Society’s View of Youth of Color and their Respective Marginalization

When pushing children into the school-to-prison pipeline, many are aware of the pipeline’s racial disparities, yet are oblivious to the damaging effects it has on youth and their families. Many do not recognize that these children are reacting to the “shame” they feel from being labeled as “criminal.” Instead, people view these youth as “criminals” and endorse their harsh punishment. The private prison industry uses this knowledge to its advantage, realizing that youth are vulnerable and do not have the power to voice their disadvantage.

The William Porter Reformatory
Creative Commons License photo credit: mallix

In his book, Youth in a Suspect Society, Henry Giroux states:

The disparaging view of young people has promulgated the rise of a punishing and (in) security industry whose discourses, technologies, and practices have become visible across a wide range of spaces and institutions (p. 73).

This view of young people is reflected in both the motives and the actions of the private prison industry. As exemplified in the “Kids for Cash” scandal, children are being seen as commodities. And these actions are being justified by a society who is exposed to racialized and criminalized images of minority youth presented by the media, making some fear these youth, believing their “misbehavior” is dangerous and that harsh “punishment” is the only solution. This fear is thus reflected in laws intended to marginalize youth of color. Rios explains that these children are being “systematically denied” their “positive rite,” which is defined as the “universal human need to be perceived by others in a positive light, with consideration instead of degradation” (p. 58). Although it may be difficult for youth to achieve this recognition in today’s racialized social system, reflecting on the connection between the school-to-prison pipeline and private juvenile facilities should make people question the knowledge and motives of the corporations behind their construction.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is the private prison industry capitalizing on society’s “fear” of minority youth? In other words, how does the media’s presentation of racialized images directly benefit the private prison industry?
  2. What would the prison system look like if these youth were granted their “positive rite?” How can you help them achieve this consideration?

~ *We are a group of four sociology students studying critical theories of race and racism in Danielle Dirks’ “Contemporary Sociological Theory” undergraduate course at Occidental College. Please read and feel free to comment or ask questions. Thank you for your time!

Another Picture of the Criminal Justice System

Recently on this blog, there were a number of heated exchanges over the Oscar Grant shooting. Many of the comments reiterated some of the basest stereotypes and misinformation about blacks’ “natural” proclivities for criminal behavior, and bandied about misleading or simply inaccurate statistics as proof. Quite a few posters, and undoubtedly many Americans at large, seem to be of the general opinion that black people are criminally inclined and thus their overrepresentation in the criminal justice system represents their disproportionate predisposition to commit illegal acts.
This disturbing story offers information that should cause people to rethink these knee-jerk assumptions that incarceration = criminality. This news alert describes a case of corrupt judges in Pennsylvania who received kickbacks from for-profit prison companies after sentencing children:

“As many as 5,000 children in Pennsylvania have been found guilty, and up to 2,000 of them jailed, by two corrupt judges who received kickbacks from the builders and owners of private prison facilities that benefited. The two judges pleaded guilty in a stunning case of greed and corruption that is still unfolding. Judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan received $2.6 million in kickbacks while imprisoning children who often had no access to a lawyer. The case offers an extraordinary glimpse into the shameful private prison industry that is flourishing in the United States.”

The report asserts that the two judges pleaded guilty to tax evasion and wire fraud, and that they regularly sentenced children on innocuous cases after violating their rights to due process, and ignoring prosecutors’ recommendations for leniency. One story describes a fourteen year old girl who was sentenced to nearly a year for slapping another girl after an argument escalated and the other girl hit her, and another girl discusses being sentenced to three months in a criminal facility after posting a web page that mocked an assistant principal at her school. Predictably, imprisonment has had a profoundly detrimental effect on these children. One states:

“People looked at me different when I came out, thought I was a bad person, because I was gone for so long. My family started splitting up … because I was away and got locked up. I’m still struggling in school, because the schooling system in facilities like these places [are] just horrible.”

She began cutting herself, blaming the medication that she was forced to take:

“I was never depressed, I was never put on meds before. I went there, and they just started putting meds on me, and I didn’t even know what they were. They said if I didn’t take them, I wasn’t following my program.”

She was hospitalized three times.   The experience of this child is not an isolated incident.  Children who are locked up are at risk for brutal violence at the hands of police, as in this assault of a teenaged girl by sheriff’s deputies in King County, Washington reveals:

The deputy in this case has plead not guilty. The judges who were found guilty of violating the constitutional rights of and illegally sentencing up to 5,000 children for profit, these judges will serve a mere seven years.

While the report on the illegal sentencing case doesn’t mention the racial identity of the two girls who are described above, nor any of the others affected by these judges, the video from King County, Washington reminds us that those involved in the prison system in this country are disproportionately people of color. So it might not be a stretch to question how many of the 5,000 children affected by these judges are black or Latino. This story should at least compel us to rethink naïve assumptions that our criminal justice system is fair, balanced, and impartial, and to consider the implications of this when a disproportionate number of black and brown men are imprisoned. And while we’re at it, we might also consider why this story hasn’t (to my knowledge) received major national news coverage?