The Troubling History Of America’s Private Prisons

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The thinking behind private prisons in the mid-1800s could scarcely have been more starkly described than in an article in the Telegraph and Texas Register. “If a profit of several thousand dollars can be made on the labor of twenty slaves, why may not a similar profit be made on the labor of twenty convicts?” the newspaper’s correspondent asked in all seriousness.

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And when you read descriptions of 19th-century private prisons, which came to the fore after the end of the Civil War, the comparison with slavery is hard to avoid. In fact, early-adopter Louisiana got into the private prison business before the conflict, turning its state prison into a for-profit enterprise in 1844.

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A company called McHatton, Pratt, and Ward owned the Louisiana jail and their motivation was purely commercial. The prisoners even helped slave owners in the state because they made inexpensive clothes especially for slaves. Obviously the masters aimed to economize where they could.

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In a 2018 article, Time magazine quoted one Louisiana prisoner from the institution when McHatton, Pratt, and Ward took over. He said that the prison authorities “laid aside all objects of reformation and re-instated the most cruel tyranny, to eke out the dollar and cents of human misery.” Hardly a ringing endorsement of prison privatization.

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And that prisoner was scarcely exaggerating with the phrase “cruel tyranny” when it came to privatized prisons in the 19th century. Cruel and unusual punishment seems to have been the order of the day. Torture was common. Private prison owners were apparently happy to use brutality in the pursuit of profits.

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One favored punishment was known as “watering”. This involved restraining the prisoner and inserting a funnel into his mouth. Staff then poured water down the tube until the prisoner’s gut swelled up. This put stress on the heart, making the unfortunate victim feel that death was near.

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Another commonly used form of retribution was called “stringing up.” Guards would tie a rope to the prisoner’s thumbs and then run the rope over a tree branch. They then hauled on the rope, pulling the prisoner off his feet. Prisoners might be left in this excruciating position for hours.

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In fact, the private prison system back then was killing more people than slavery itself. In Louisiana for example, one man, Samuel Lawrence James, took commercial control of the state’s prisoners. From 1870 to 1901, around 3,000 of them died. Grimly the majority of those who died were African Americans.

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Planters who had owned slaves before the Civil War and the abolition of slavery had an incentive to keep their workforce healthy. After all they’d paid good money for their exploited workers. But across the Southern states between 16 and 25 percent of prisoners died each year.

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Time quoted one Southerner in 1883. “Before the war, we owned the negroes. If a man had a good negro, he could afford to take care of him: if he was sick get a doctor… But these convicts: we don’t own ‘em,” he said. “One dies, get another.”

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Right up until the start of the 20th century, prisoners in the South were incarcerated on plantations and work camps where their labor was exploited. Convicted criminals built railroads, picked cotton and mined coal. Indeed, former slavers sometimes took the role of prison owner and they ended up with more unpaid workers than they’d had under slavery.

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For a time, even the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest, managed all of the prisoners in Mississippi. The U.S. Steel Company had convicts working down its coal mines. In Tennessee, Thomas O’Conner also had prisoners working as miners.

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Clearly an ingenious man, this O’Conner spotted extra sources of income that his beleaguered prisoners could provide. He saved the their urine and sold it to tanneries. And when they died, he sold their cadavers to Nashville’s medical school, so aspiring doctors could practice their skills on the dead convicts.

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So these 19th-century private prison owners would stop at virtually nothing to maximize their profits, and rehabilitation or common humanity were alien concepts. But then states noticed that prisons offered potentially lucrative sources of income. And in the early part of the 20th century, legislators began to take them back into public control. The desire to make money had prevailed.

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But in the 1980s, the idea of privatizing prisons came back into vogue. During that decade, prison populations mushroomed, with the increase driven by what some saw as an ill-conceived “war on drugs.” One trailblazing company that entered the prison business was the Corrections Corporation of America, now revamped as the more contemporary sounding CoreCivic.

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In fact, the “mass incarceration industry,” a phrase coined by Alex Friedmann, a former prisoner himself and now working for the Human Rights Defense Center, is largely carved up between just two corporations. CoreCivic has cornered 42 percent of the action while GEO Group has 37 percent. The remainder is divvied up between smaller companies.

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It is fatuous to compare the private prisons of today with those savage penitentiaries of the 19th century. But the modern private prison industry certainly has its critics. One of those is the aforementioned Alex Friedmann, who spent six years in prison for armed robbery in the 1990s.

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Talking to VOA News, Friedmann recalled that he initially welcomed CoreCivic’s ownership of Clifton, Tennessee’s South Central Correctional Facility. “Things were shiny. They had soft drinks in the dining hall. It all looked pretty good,” he remembered. But things soon took a turn for the worse. Staff morale fell and turnover was high thanks to cost-cutting. Security was a problem. “We had a murder in the first two months I was there, an escape a couple of months after I was there. Riots broke out and so on.” Friedmann said.

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And there’s been a continuing controversy about forced labor in corporate prisons, a reminder of the 19th-century private jails. In 2017 a Guardian report highlighted the practice at Georgia’s Stewart immigration detention center, run by CoreCivic. Despite the work being supposedly voluntary, prisoners nevertheless had little choice but to participate in the labor program, the newspaper alleged. And the resulting profits swelled CoreCivic’s coffers.

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For some, prisons run for profit are simply unethical. Jeannie Alexander of the No Exceptions Prison Collective believes they should be eradicated. “The product is the prisoner,” she told VOA News. In fact, the U.S. aimed to abolish private prisons, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed the decision following President Trump’s election. Prison companies’ share prices rose with that announcement. So whatever your view, private prisons are here to stay, at least for now.

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