For-profit prisons equal modern-day slavery
Commentary By Nell Levin
June 06, 2001
After the Civil War, the South lost its primary labor resource -- free slave labor.

Landless "free blacks" roamed the countryside looking for work, much to the consternation of many whites. New ways to re-enslave African-Americans were quickly devised. Laws against vagrancy were passed, along with the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery except when people were convicted of crimes.

Soon many blacks found themselves behind bars. Southern states then started leasing African-American convicts out to private businesses, often run by former plantation owners. These businesses made huge profits by simultaneously charging the states to house and feed the prisoners (which they did as cheaply as possible) and by exploiting free labor by prisoners.

The history of the private prison industry can be traced to these dark days, says Ashley Hunt, whose disturbing documentary on the private prison industry, Corrections, was recently shown in Nashville. Hunt was in town because Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the No. 1 private prison corporation in the United States, held its stockholders' meeting at Loew's Vanderbilt Plaza May 22.

CCA is facing a series of problems. Its stock prices have plunged; it was sued by disgruntled stockholders; and the French catering giant, Sodexho, CCA's largest shareholder, just divested its shares of CCA stock after being hit with a series of student protests against CCA on campuses where it provides food services. Three Nashville universities -- Belmont, David Lipscomb and Fisk -- use its food services.

CCA's CEO John Ferguson tried to put a happy face on it all. He told shareholders that despite challenges such as the company's high debt and a need to fill remaining empty beds, management is making progress toward a turnaround.

How will CCA fill empty beds and turn a profit for its shareholders? Here are a few of the current practices favored by the private prison industry:

* Push for longer sentences, including sentences for nonviolent and drug offenses.

* Minimalize rehabilitation services. "Many prisoners will be locked up again and again often for the same crimes because the prisons do little or nothing to rehabilitate them -- which is the only way to insure consistent growth and profit for the privatized prison business," Hunt said.

* Cut costs by providing prisoners with minimal health care services, fewer blankets and less food.

* Skimp on training for guards and pay them lower wages than the state pays. CCA officers receive 160 hours of training compared to the national average of 229 hours for state guards. CCA guards average 20 percent less pay a week than the national average for public guards while receiving stock options designed to give them a sense of "ownership" in the company. Obviously, this tactic is not working because guards in private facilities face an annual average turnover ratio of 41.2 percent compared to 14.9 percent in state-run prisons.

* Expand privatization into the booming juvenile justice system. When asked what they wanted to change about the private juvenile prison in Tallulah, La., the children responded, "We'd like for the guards to stop hitting us, and we'd like more food." CCA already operates juvenile facilities for the Shelby County courts as well as Nashville's Juvenile Justice Center.

Today, the U.S. prison population is eight times what it was in 1970. More than two million people are behind bars. African Americans constitute 13 percent of the U.S. population and 44 percent of the prison population; black males are seven times as likely to be incarcerated as whites. Two-thirds of U.S. prisoners are in prison for nonviolent offenses, many of them drug offenses. The arrest rates for drug offenders are six times higher for blacks than they are for whites.

Slavery is still with us. It is now a for-profit industry headquartered right here in Nashville.

Nell Levin is longtime activist and a concerned citizen. She can be reached at

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