This is What Institutional Racism Looks Like

Concepts like ‘institutional racism’ can be hard to get a firm hold on sometimes.  Then, along comes a perfectly illustrative example, and it’s really clear what institutional racism looks like.

This week NPR reported the shocking details of the funding behind Arizona’s immigration law.  Private prison corporations, such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), among those who were the primary drafters and proponents of Arizona’s SB 1070 legislation.  The law would systematically fill Arizona’s prisons with hundreds of thousands of brown-skinned undocumented immigrants in a way never done before.  And, at the same time, it would mean hundreds of millions of dollars in profits to private prison companies who are in the business of housing them.

Montana jail

(Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: harrachglass)

The private prison industry is a result of neoliberalism which holds that “the market” is a better solution for society’s problems than government.   When it comes to the private prison industry, the “pitch” to local communities is that these are industries that provide a “stable employment base.”   Some of this comes through on the CCA website:

“currently holds approximately 75,000 inmates including males, females, and juveniles at all security levels, in more than 60 facilities under contract for management in 19 states and the District of Columbia.  CCA currently partners with all three federal corrections agencies (The Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement), nearly half of all states and more than a dozen local municipalities. Since its inception, CCA has maintained its market leadership position in private corrections, managing more than 50 percent of all beds under contract with such providers in the United States.  … The company also provides valuable economic benefits to its local community partners by paying property, sales and other taxes, and providing a stable employment base that focuses on building careers with unlimited growth and development opportunities. As a strong corporate citizen, recognized by Corporate Responsibility Officer magazine, CCA contributes generously to host communities through volunteerism and charitable giving.”

Of course, what doesn’t get addressed in the glossy corporate promotion materials is that the prison-industrial complex is one of the central mechanisms that maintains the stark institutional racism that characterizes the U.S.  The fact is that those who are incarcerated are disproportionately black and brown folks, even though lawbreakers are fairly even distributed across racial groups.    This is what Michelle Alexander has referred to as The New Jim Crow.

Who is running the private prison industry, you may ask?  For the most part, it’s wealthy, white men like John Ferguson, head of CCA.

As the rest of the economy tanks, state economies shrivel, and prisons now look more clearly like the economic drain they always have been, the private prison industry has suffered some losses. The industry is in a position now where it has to scramble in order to keep offering a “stable employment base” and continue to profit off of this new form of institutional racism.  The industry leaders point to immigration detention as the growth sector that will save them.    This is from a February 2009 article about CCA:

“Corrections Corporation of America’s share prices sunk Tuesday after it announced lower earnings than expected in its annual report, but executives said they are “bullish” about the leading private prison provider’s long term future. Even as states cut their corrections budgets, immigrant detainees will provide CCA a steady source of income.
‘The detainee growth will come from lots of sources,” CCA CEO John Ferguson told analysts during a telephone conference call. “So there is no reason to believe that these populations won’t just creep up over time.’

And, clearly from the NPR report, people like Ferguson are willing to draft legislation and get it passed that ensures that the population continues to “creep up” and along with CCA’s profits.

If you’ve followed news about prisons in the U.S. for awhile, none of this is particularly surprising although it is still shocking somehow.  What’s so very important about the NPR report is that it offers a rare glimpse into the way that policies and legislation that have a huge negative impact on black and brown people get created by a handful of powerful, white men as they, and others like them, stand to benefit.    This is what institutional racism looks like.