Mass Incarceration and the Continued Practice of Trading Black Bodies for Profit

Alice Speri of 'The Intercept' wrote a really good article today about jail leasing and the trading of Black bodies for profit. She didn't use those words per se in the article, but the implication of what's being done is the same. The article is entitled, 'Local Jails Profit from Warehousing State Prisoners' and can be read (HERE) by clicking the link provided. I wanted to unpack this article for you guys and give my perspective and interpretation of what this all means. The prison and criminal injustice systems are perhaps the greatest forms of state violence against the Black community and have been since slavery. So Black and Intellectual takes this crisis of mass incarceration very seriously and will continue to write on it in the future.

The article starts with these two paragraphs...

Louisiana’s prisons are so overcrowded that more than half the state’s prisoners can’t fit in them and have been sent to serve their sentences in county jails instead, where they occupy more than 75 percent of the beds normally reserved for local detainees awaiting trial or serving short sentences. In Mississippi, state prisoners take up more than 55 percent of local jails’ beds; in Kentucky, the proportion is more than 45 percent.

These numbers, released today as part of a Prison Policy Initiative report on “jail leasing,” expose the extent of a practice that advocates say harms prisoners and raises ethical questions about public institutions profiting off incarceration. But as some states embark on efforts to reduce prison populations, local officials who for years have received financial incentives to house state prisoners in their jails are now faced with the threat of a loss of revenue.

— Alice Speri, The Intercept

The first paragraph shows the disturbing number of people who are caught up in the prison system. So much so that due to over-crowding they take up 75% of the beds in lower-level country jails where they should not be. The second paragraphs explains how it's not just a practice that hurts the prisoners, but the whole process exposes how problematic and grossly immoral profiteering off of incarceration really is due to the revenue this practice generates. How does this generate a profit? Well Alice Speri explains...

As mass incarceration boomed and prisons nationwide were filled to the brim, private detention facilities sprung up to take in some of the “surplus” population — at a premium. These private prisons have faced much criticism in recent years, while local jails, engaging in the same practice and often in direct competition with them, have done so less conspicuously. In 2014, 8.4 percent of those sentenced to prison nationwide were sent to private facilities, where the prospect of profit makes efforts to reduce recidivism counterintuitive. But another 5.2 percent of state prisoners were sent to public local jails, which are intended for temporary custody and lack most of the rehabilitative and educational services that prisons are supposed to provide.
With more than 3,000 facilities scattered across the country and a variety of local agencies in charge, jails are uniquely difficult to monitor, and even harder to reform. Consistent data about jails is hard to come by, and because they are small and managed locally, they often escape the scrutiny of advocacy groups that monitor abuse and neglect in prisons.

— Alice Speri, The Intercept

Herein lies the problem as this article does a great job of showing, much of the criticism leveled at private prisons can ALSO be leveled at local jails who as stated above engage in the same practices as private prisons and at times is in direct competition WITH private prisons! That practice is the storing of "surplus" populations of inmates at a PREMIUM! Meaning that not only private prisons, but also local jails profiteer off of the storing of mostly Black and Brown bodies. It also states that when inmates are forced to serve out their sentences in a local facility, it does more damage to the inmate due to a lack of services at local facilities that weren't set up to provide things like rehabilitation and education. So this practice is counter-productive if your intention is to lower recidivism and make sure inmates don't go back to prison once they are finally released.

The article brings up another issue that seems to keep cropping up over and over again and that is how hard it is to get good data on local jails because they are small and managed locally. Not only that however, but it's part of a larger pattern that has appeared across the country of certain data points about criminal justice either not being kept or records being hard to come by. A great example of this is the lack of good data about the number of people killed by police which is a crucial piece of information the Department of Justice does not force police departments to keep track of.

However it gets worse...

Louisiana’s staggering jail leasing numbers are largely the result of a state prison system that is overburdened by sentencing so severe that the state has been dubbed the “prison capital of the world.” In the 1990s, Louisiana came under a federal order to reduce overcrowding in its prisons, but instead of decreasing the incarcerated population or building new facilities, the state turned to local sheriffs for help housing inmates.
Over time, jail leasing turned into a reliable source of income for local officials looking to balance budgets. In some counties, jail wardens “make daily rounds of calls” all over the state to “hustle” for people to fill their jails, the Prison Policy Initiative report notes. In Oklahoma, for instance, where 25.5 percent of local jail beds are filled by state prisoners, sheriffs receive $27 per day for each inmate they hold for the state — making up as much as 7 percent of some counties’ budgets.

“The sheriffs have a direct financial incentive to pack their jails as full as they can,” said Esman.

— Alice Speri, The Intercept
 Graphs originates from
Graphs originates from

Just so you, the reader, can have an idea of the sheer number of people the state of Louisiana flippantly incarcerates. Check out the image to the right and you'll see clear as day why that state has been labeled the prison capitol of the world. The state of Louisiana by itself is literally a prison state and in the 1990's they were forced by the federal government to reduce overcrowding in prisons. As the article states, instead of decriminalizing drugs like marijuana or taking away the profit incentive in incarceration or putting a moratorium on prison construction...these people pulled the proverbial okie-doke and simply started handing off "surplus" inmates to local jails who weren't the subject of the federal order. So this way they can say publicly that they "reduced their prison population" while NOT reducing their prison population or any of the practices that caused the explosion in incarceration anyway!

This jail leasing tactic has become so profitable for local sheriffs that as stated above, they now compete with private prisons for inmates to the point of it becoming a literal hustle for them due to the fact that local jail wardens make money EACH DAY a state inmate is housed in their facility!. In some cases making up as much as 7% of a counties budget.

This practice is gross and insane and goes to explain to you why the assault on the Black community continues to this day. It has little to do with "cleaning up the streets" anymore. I mean individual people in the system may still believe in that, but these types of problematic and HUGE conflicts of interest are the real factors shaping the agenda and you're naive if you think otherwise. This isn't just a Louisiana problem either, it's going on across the country in multiple states...dare I say ALL states.

Where is the moral integrity in criminal justice? Was it ever there to begin with? How can America say slavery is over when you have inmates literally being traded like free agents between state prisons and local and private prisons who profit from these trades and skirt accountability? The more that comes out about America's prison-industrial complex, the more disgusted I become.

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