Hailed, and partly for good reasons, as a positive development, the Guardian today announces:
The private prison industry is set to be upended after California lawmakers passed a bill on Wednesday banning the facilities from operating in the state. The move will probably also close down four large immigration detention facilities that can hold up to 4,500 people at a time.
The legislation is being hailed as a major victory for criminal justice reform because it removes the profit motive from incarceration. It also marks a dramatic departure from California’s past, when private prisons were relied on to reduce crowding in state-run facilities.
Private prison companies used to view California as one of their fastest-growing markets. As recently as 2016, private prisons locked up approximately 7,000 Californians, about 5% of the state’s total prison population, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. But in recent years, thousands of inmates have been transferred from private prisons back into state-run facilities. As of June, private prisons held 2,222 of California’s total inmate population.
What does this mean, exactly? Keep in mind that there are no actual private prisons on California soil–and yet, California is one of the private prison industry’s best clients, as it houses thousands of its inmates in Arizona and other states that have a flourishing array of private facilities (mostly owned by CoreCivic, formerly the CCA, and the Geo Group.) The bill, AB 32, changes this relationship by barring the state from contracting with private providers outside the state. This includes, importantly, the use of private prisons for holding undocumented immigrants: “Detention facility” is defined in the bill as “any facility in which persons are incarcerated or otherwise involuntarily confined for purposes of execution of a punitive sentence imposed by a court or detention pending a trial, hearing, or other judicial or administrative proceeding.”
Is it realistic for CA legislature to divest from private prisons? It is, to the extent that “private prison” is, as defined in the bill, “a detention facility that is operated by a private, nongovernmental, for-profit entity, and operating pursuant to a contract or agreement with a governmental entity.” But what about the many functions provided inside so-called governmental prisons in CA through private subcontractors? This interesting magazine article about prison food in Chino depicts what is an atypically good reality; prison food is hard to provide without recurring to private contracting, and is awful whether provided through public or private means. Similarly, the much-maligned CA prison healthcare system, which has been for years in the hands of a federal receiver, extensively contracts with private health care providers. This stuff is not the alternative to a public prison economy: it *is* the economy. How do we make sure that prisoners have beds to sleep on, doctors and nurses to take care of them, and two or three (meager, yucky) meals a day? In the neoliberal capitalist world, there aren’t a lot of options out there. So divesting from private prisons completely is not a particularly realistic premise, nor is it particularly desirable (private providers are not categorically worse for the inmates than public providers, and everyone is motivated by greed, as I explain here.) It does have one important, unqualified positive effect: we are not building new public prisons, and we are not housing people in private prisons anymore, so we should incarcerate less people, period. That in itself will be a success.
But there’s something else I find somewhat fishy here, and that’s the supposed divestment of CA from private detention of immigrants. The picture here is much more complicated, because undocumented immigrants are primarily the responsibility of DHS and ICE, the latter of which incarcerates and prepares people for removal as the federal arm of law enforcement (Richard Boswell explains this separation of powers very well here.) What the feds do is contract with states such as CA to house undocumented immigrants, over whom Congress has plenary power and ICE has enforcement prerogatives. Some CA cities house immigrants in their public jails; others contract with private subcontractor providers to meet ICE’s demand. CA’s complicity with awful federal policies is not so much in the fact that they deal with private contractors; its in the awful conditions in both private and public facilities and in poorly supervising the conditions in these places. To be fair, it’s not all CA’s fault – their inability to supervise more effectively stems largely from the general chaos in immigration detention and from hurdles placed by ICE. But I’m unclear on whether these undocumented minors are worse off in private facilities than they are in post-Plata public jails, which do a notoriously poor job distinguishing between immigrants and “real criminals” (whatever the heck that means.)
In short, before dancing a jig about divestment from the public industry, let’s ask ourselves some hard questions about the market itself and how it incentivizes public and private institutions alike to do a poor job locking people up (including people whose only supposed “crime” is saving themselves and their families from the conditions in Central America.)