Anti-Immigrant Legislation and Private Prison Labor: A Modern Day Slavery

~ This is the last post of our three-part blog series on the criminalization of people of color and the private prison industry.

“The prison is like a rather disciplined barracks, a strict school, a dark workshop, but not qualitatively different” – Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (p. 233)

Patarei Prison
Creative Commons License photo credit: Toni Kaarttinen

Prisons have long served to keep individuals labeled “deviant” in America under constant surveillance. It is no secret that those labeled “deviant” are those that society keeps at the bottom: racial minorities. Today, that “deviant” label has increasingly been applied to immigrants from Central and South America. Thus, we can see that these groups are especially vulnerable to the detainment and abuse by private prisons in the US today. How have private prisons capitalized on the criminalization of immigrants?

First, the passage and enforcement of anti-immigration laws (such as Operation Streamline [pdf]) have correlated with the expansion of private prisons. These results can especially be seen in the state of Texas. According to the Grassroots Leadership report, “Operation Streamline: Drowning Justice and Draining Dollars along the Rio Grande,” the number of immigrants sentenced to prison for crossing the Mexico/Texas border without authorization in two districts grew from 2,770 in 2002 to 44,517 in 2009.

Creative Commons License photo credit: i like jade plants

“The expanded criminal and civil immigration detention system has been a huge financial boon to private prison corporations, such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut) and Management and Training Corporation (MTC)” according to the report. Texas is not alone in criminalizing and incarcerating immigrants, the state of Arizona (on the heels of its controversial SB1070 anti-immigrant legislation) announced in early 2011 a request for proposals for a 5000-bed private prison. It should come then as no surprise that CCA was a key architect and proponent of SB1070, as NPR and Racism Review reported on earlier this year. Private prison corporations stand to gain hundreds of millions of dollars from laws such as this.

A private prison serves as a third party contracted by government agencies to detain prisoners. Private prison corporations enter contractual agreements with governments that commit prisoners and pay private prison corporations a per diem or monthly rate for each prisoner confined in the facility. Private prison corporations profit from mass incarceration that targets racial and ethnic minorities, and increasingly, undocumented immigrants. In addition to being paid by the state to hold prisoners, private prisons profit from using those prisoners in turn as laborers.

While work is not a mandatory discipline within all private prisons, it is a discipline that is highly incentivized. Private prisons use discipline to control, manipulate and subject their prisoners and turning them into machines or “docile bodies” that will give them cheap labor. Every day, these prisoners work to process food, produce brooms, sew clothing, wire technical items, etc. Prisoners are paid between $0.23 and $4.73 per day while at the same time, it costs these inmates $5 A MINUTE to make a phone call in private prisons (see also, Think Progress article on this).

Death Row
Creative Commons License photo credit: Melody Kramer

Labor within private prisons is clearly not used for the transformation and rehabilitation of these inmates into constructive members of society. Mass incarceration, that has expanded with the passing of anti-immigrant laws, increased with the development of private prisons has resulted in the incarceration of over 2.3 million people, who are now working for a twisted and corrupt economy. Those familiar with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow book can certainly help argue that these inmates are essentially modern-day slaves of the 21st century; they are being exploited and used by a system that not only refuses to help them, but aims to keep them incarcerated for the purpose of creating a profit.


  1. How has anti-immigrant legislation helped shape the face of state-sanctioned private prison “modern” slavery or indentured servitude?
  2. How can we work to end private prisons’ ability to exploit anti-immigration sentiment and legislation for profit?

~ *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!

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!

Youth of Color, the School-to-Prison Pipeline and the Private Prison Industry

If the notion of punishment as a source of potentially stupendous profits is disturbing by itself, then the strategic dependence on racist structures and ideologies to render mass punishment palatable and profitable is even more troubling. – Angela Davis, “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex”

There are many ways for the private prison industry to create a profit. To maintain this profit, this industry relies on continuous mass incarceration. Recently, the industry has developed for-profit juvenile facilities that target vulnerable youth, especially youth of color, in an effort to expand their business. This question arose when researching the development of these juvenile facilities: what does privatization look like with the school-to-prison pipeline? In other words, could the private prison industry be directly or indirectly benefiting from the school-to-prison pipeline?

(Creative Commons License photo credit: ec.kane )

Kids for Cash

The “Kids for Cash” scandal serves as a perfect example of the industry directly benefiting from the school-to-prison pipeline, as children were directly routed from their schools into privatized facilities. In 2009, two corrupt judges from Pennsylvania were charged with accepting over $2.6 million in “kickbacks” from private juvenile facilities. From 2003 to 2008, these judges found over 4,000 juveniles guilty, many of whom did not have legal representation, and were sent to one or both of the facilities that were involved in the scandal. This scheme exemplifies how privatizing prisons, specifically juvenile detention centers, plays a direct role in pushing children into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Judges Conahan and Ciavarella

School-to-Prison Pipeline: Racializing “Misbehavior” and “Punishment” in Schools

The private prison industry could also indirectly benefit from policies and practices created to drive youth, specifically youth of color, into the school-to-prison pipeline. This pipeline begins mostly in inner-city schools, when children are harshly punished for “misbehavior.” In this context, the word “misbehavior” has been socially constructed as a “racialized” term, meaning youth of color receive harsher punishments than their white counterparts. According to the ACLU, for example, “African-American students are far more likely than their white peers to be suspended, expelled, or arrested for the same kind of conduct at school.” In addition, the “punishment” in response to this misbehavior has been socially constructed and “racialized.” For example, “In 2003, African-American youth made up 16% of the nation’s overall juvenile population, but accounted for 45% of juvenile arrests,” even though, “there is no evidence that students of color misbehave to a greater degree than white students.” The punishment for this misbehavior is often expulsion, leaving these youth on the streets, usually without supervision and structure.

Kind of Like School
( Creative Commons License photo credit: cogdogblog )

School-to-Prison Pipeline: Criminalizing Youth of Color in the Streets

Exposure in the streets and being criminalized by the police is the next phase of the school-to-prison pipeline. In his book, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, Victor Rios argues that in these circumstances, youth of color become engaged in “play”—“the seeking of personal enjoyment despite their detrimental circumstances”—rather than work, which has since been criminalized and used as a tool to mass incarcerate youth of color (p. 76). When labeled as “criminals” by school faculty, the police, and even their own families, these youths begin to internalize this label and act upon it. Rios reinforces this concept in his presentation of juvenile crime research: “Being shamed and feeling stigmatized often leads young people into crime” (p. 58). The racialized constructions of misbehavior and punishment and the resulting criminalization indirectly benefit the private prison industry, as these juveniles may be sent to private facilities. The populations of these facilities have also been racialized: in Mississippi’s Walnut Grove facility, for example, 90% of its inhabitants are African American men. Although there is no research that directly connects the school-to-prison pipeline and the private prison industry, the deconstruction of the pipeline shows how the industry could be benefiting from these disciplinary actions, which are mainly targeted toward youth of color.

march 2011 8464
(Creative Commons License photo credit: bpbailey )

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is it correct to build private juvenile detention facilities, as they will likely always target vulnerable youth to maintain their populations and to create a profit?
  2. If there were no for-profit juvenile facilities, would there still be incentive to mass incarcerate youth of color?
  3. Who else, aside from the prison industrial complex, is benefiting from incarcerating youth of color? (We will begin to address this question in our next blog post)
~ *This post is from one of four sociology students studying critical theories of race and racism in Danielle Dirks’ “Contemporary Sociological Theory” undergraduate course at Occidental College. This is the first post of our three-part blog series on the criminalization of people of color and the private prison industry. Please read and feel free to comment or ask questions. Thank you for your time!

Death Penalty: Four Part Series

I teach “Capital Punishment in America,” an undergraduate course offered through the Department of Sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. This semester, I have asked the students in the class to engage social media as a way to broaden our class discussion about the death penalty.   I approached Joe and Jessie about hosting part of this discussion here, and they kindly agreed to feature some of the students’ work on Racism Review.

Following this is a four-part blog series on race and the death penalty, each post written by a group of four students interested in the idea of racial disparities and the death penalty.  Part of the goal of this exercise is to generate discussion with people outside the class, so please be sure to comment.

As many Racism Review readers are aware, the death penalty has long been fraught with issues of racial bias and discrimination. While there have been attempts to improve the fairness of the system, the students’ blog posts will illustrate that we still have a long way to go when the state kills.

~ Danielle Dirks, PhD Candidate, Department of Sociology, University of Texas-Austin

Summer Blockbusters Traffic in Racist Caricatures. Sky Blue

ADDITION Film Transformers-Jar Jar AgainSource: AP Photo/Paramount Pictures Film publicity image taken from (here) The twin robots from “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” (see also here)
I thought I had seen and heard it all after seeing The Hangover film this past week. Effeminate Asian man (check). Big, scary Black men (check). Dangerous, cunning Asian men (check). Grossly portrayed and sexualized Black women’s bodies (check). Not to mention the litany of sexist and homophobic stereotypes, labels, and images littered throughout the film. Interestingly, it is not this film that has garnered criticism for its racist caricatures, but Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen that was released this week.

At issue are two “jive-talking robots”that play good guys and are meant to provide “comic relief” (sound familiar?):

Skids and Mudflap, twin robots disguised as compact hatchbacks, constantly brawl and bicker in rap-inspired street slang. They’re forced to acknowledge that they can’t read. One has a gold tooth.

Illiterate buffoons, not necessarily imaginative characters given the long history of such portrayals of so-called “Blackness.” We’re not the only ones who have picked up on these historical links (even recent history) as one Transformers fan renamed the twins “Jar Jar Bots”in reference to the Star Wars (1999) contentious minstrel character Jar Jar Binks.

Of course, director Michael Bay defends the characters first by reminding us that they’re robots played by “voice actors”:

“It’s done in fun,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s stereotypes… they are robots, by the way. These are the voice actors. This is kind of the direction they were taking the characters and we went with it.”

In effect, Bay is saying it is the actors—Reno Wilson, who is Black and Tom Kenny, who is White—who decided to racialize these characters, not him. This perhaps would not be so suspect had I not run across a GQ feature of comedian Aziz Ansari who shared:

“I turned down an audition for Transformers because the producers wanted a Kwik-E-Mart accent… That’s not my thing. I don’t do jokes about my uncle’s thick Indian accent and how funny it is when he orders at McDonald’s.”

Clearly, these actors are chosen for their ability (and willingness) to play such characters. We are also reminded that these characters are just robots, as if that somehow places them out of the realm of racial criticism. As Allyson Nadia Field, assistant professor at UCLA points out:

“There’s a persistent dehumanization of African-Americans throughout Hollywood that displaces issues of race onto non-human entities. It’s not about skin color or robot color. It’s about how their actions and language are coded racially.”

Tasha Robinson, associate entertainment editor at The Onion, adds

“If these characters weren’t animated and instead played by real black actors, “then you might have to admit that it’s racist. . . . But stick it into a robot’s mouth, and it’s just a robot, it’s OK.”

Popular culture is constantly reinventing itself under the guise of creativity and innovation. There is very little creative about even non-human characters whose only purpose serves to maintain the racial hierarchy. These images have a long past and dehumanize Black Americans in merely updated forms. Jennifer Mueller and I have written a bit about this in saying that their continued existence today are simply reformations of “such deeply rooted ideologies, rather than truly novel inventions.”

While all of this is equally disturbing, I feel it is Director Bay’s statement about the purpose and inclusion of these racist caricatures that makes my stomach turn:

“I purely did it for kids,” the director said. “Young kids love these robots, because it makes it more accessible to them.”

Get them started young, right?

Imaginary Black Men Invoked Once Again

We can add yet another racial hoax to a long list of incidents involving white “victims” and imaginary black assailants.

A Pennsylvania woman, Bonnie Sweeten, and her 9-year-old daughter, have been detained in Orlando, Florida this past week after the mother claimed they were abducted and stuffed into the trunk of a car:

In the frantic 911 calls, Sweeten, said two men had bumped her 2005 GMC Denali, carjacked her and stuffed her in the trunk of a dark Cadillac. She implied that her daughter was with her in the trunk, according to Philadelphia police Lt. Frank Vanore, who listened to tapes of the calls. Sweeten, who is white, described her assailants as black but otherwise gave few details about their appearance, Vanore said. “It was pretty generic,” he said.

Later in the day, she and her daughter were caught on surveillance tapes in the Philadelphia International Airport heading to a Florida Disney resort. Sweeten had apparently taken out $12,000 out of several bank accounts in days prior and it is unclear whether or not the money was stolen.

Unfortunately, racial hoaxes like Sweeten’s are all too common. Last fall we witnessed the case of Ashley Todd,a white 20-year-old student at Texas A&M and McCain supporter who claimed she had been pinned to the ground, robbed, and had the letter B scratched into her face by someone she described as a 6’4” black man wielding a knife. Besides the obvious backward B on her face, she soon admitted to investigators that she fabricated the entire story. She was later sentenced to nine months of probation for filing a false police report.

In her 1998 book The Color of Crime, Katheryn Russell-Brown provides data for 67 racial hoaxes between 1987 and 1996. Of those, 70% involved whites claiming black assailants. More than half of these stories are revealed as false within a week, but she writes:

The fact that so many white-on-black hoaxes are successful indicates society’s readiness to accept the image of blacks as criminals (Russell-Brown)

It is interesting to note that, “racial hoaxes are devised, perpetrated, and successful precisely because tap into widely held fears” (Russell-Brown). Perhaps unsurprisingly, media coverage has virtually ignored the fact that Sweeten’s story resembles so many that have come before her. Her racialized claim of being abducted by two black men (in a widely stereotyped Cadillac, no less) has only been presented as an afterthought.

While these recent racial hoaxes involving Sweeten and Todd were resolved rather quickly, racial harm still abounds. Media stories such as these serve to embolden the white racial frame by perpetuating stereotypes and images of black men as both dangerous and criminal. Hoaxes such as these are so easily believed because they readily hang on the white racial frame and touch upon (white) people’s racialized fears.

In addition, racial hoaxes involving white “victims” are more likely to receive significant media attention and an outpouring of support at the national level, as illustrated by Russell-Brown’s analysis and widely publicized cases such as the ones above and others (e.g., the case of Susan Smith, a woman who drowned her two children, first claiming she had been carjacked by a black man).

Lastly and perhaps most disturbing, is the fact this is clearly not the case when black victims make claims against white assailants, either as hoaxes, or as very real and disturbing [[]] events that are often ignored or are met with incredulity. What does our willingness to believe only some victims’ voices and stories, but not others, say about us?

Surprise! Hate on the Rise with Obama’s Historic Win

The Southern Poverty Law Center released its annual The Year in Hate Intelligence Report on hate groups in America.  This year the SPLC identified a record 926 active hate groups, a 4% increase from 2007, and a 54% increase in documented groups since 2000. Perhaps unsurprising though is that the failing economy and the election of President Obama have accounted for the uptick in recruitment and membership:

“Barack Obama’s election has inflamed racist extremists who see it as another sign that their country is under siege by non-whites,” said Mark Potok, editor of the Intelligence Report, a quarterly investigative journal that monitors the radical right. “The idea of a black man in the White House, combined with the deepening economic crisis and continuing high levels of Latino immigration, has given white supremacists a real platform on which to recruit.”

This CNN report by Stephanie Chen about the increase includes an interview with Don Black, the founder of one of the largest online “white nationalist” sites in America, Stormfront:

On the day after Obama’s historic election, more than 2,000 people joined his Web site, a remarkable increase from the approximately 80 new members a day he was getting, Black said. His Web site, which was started in 1995, is one of the oldest and largest hate group sites. The site received so many hits that it crashed after election results were announced. The site boasts 110,000 registered members today, Black said.

Chen goes on to quote Don Black’s compatriot in the movement, David Duke, former Klan leader and Louisiana legislator:

Obama serves as a “visual aid” that is helping respark a sense of purpose in current supporters and lure new members, said neo-Nazi David Duke, the former Klan leader who was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives in the 1980s. Duke said he fears “the white European-American” heritage will soon be destroyed. He added that his Web site sees around 40,000 unique visitors a day, up from 15,000 a day before Obama won the election.

The complete SPLC Intelligence Report can be found here. SPLC also provides an interactive map with state-by-state numbers of groups.

~ Danielle Dirks, PhD Candidate
University of Texas-Austin