Guest Opinion: Inmates or cash cows? When prison management becomes business in the U.S.-Xinhua

Guest Opinion: Inmates or cash cows? When prison management becomes business in the U.S.

Source: Xinhua| 2022-05-10 11:06:31|Editor:

by Xin Ping

BEIJING, May 10 (Xinhua) -- With less than 5 percent of the global population, the United States is home to one-fourth of the world's prison inmates, the highest proportion of the world's prison population. With its heavy financial burden, the U.S. government outsources prison management to private companies, transforming it into a profitable industry.

However, the prison industry has devolved into an "industry" of coercion and monopoly, where the legitimate rights and interests of detainees are often trampled upon. Criminal law enforcement has given way to the commercial law of making money.


There are thousands of ways to turn prisoners into cash cows while in private hands. Journalist Shane Bauer documented his undercover work as a guard at a Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) prison in Louisiana.

He witnessed the following: one inmate was forced to stay in prison for 30 extra days simply for removing a broom from a closet at the wrong time, and "for which CCA will be paid more than 1000 U.S. dollars."

According to a Berkeley study, "detained immigrants must work or face sanctions like solitary confinement or interference with their immigration cases" under the policies of private prison giant GEO Group's Housing Unit.

To maintain profits, private prisons even resort to wage theft. Detainees at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center were paid 1 dollar per day for their labor, significantly less than the federal and state minimum wage.

In his book The American Trap, former senior manager of Alstom, Frederic Pierucci, describes his time in a Rhode Island private prison as follows: "nothing here is free of charge. To drink water, you must buy plastic cups. There are TV sets, but they are silent, and you must buy headphones."


In a fair and regulated market, cost-effectiveness is not considered unethical. However, the private prison industry is a different story. In a monopolized, unregulated industry endorsed by the executive power, prison management companies become so motivated to minimize expenses that they leave inmates in harsh living conditions.

According to Bauer, the cells in CCA Louisiana "look like tombs ... Many are lit only by the light from the hallway." Inmates bear most consequences of prison staff shortage: hobby shops were deserted, access to the library limited, recreation yard emptied.

A 2019 Department of Homeland Security inspection also found that the El Paso Del Norte Processing Center in Texas housed up to 900 migrant detainees despite having the capacity for only 125 inmates.

In his report, Bauer also noted that at a CCA facility in Idaho, the company ceded control to prison gangs and even collaborated with them to discipline inmates to save money on guard wages.


Since 2000, the number of detainees in private prisons in the United States has increased by 32 percent, compared to a 3 percent increase in the total prison population. Private prison company expansion is made possible by lucrative government contracts -- campaign contributions in exchange for political favor.

According to a Justice Policy Institute report, the two largest profit-seeking prison companies and their associates have funneled more than 10 million dollars supporting political candidates since 1989 and nearly 25 million dollars on lobbying.

The marriage of politics and business harms inmates and taxpayers, whose money could have been spent on better public policies.

Although U.S. President Joe Biden has signed an executive order to phase out private prisons, the move is considered symbolic. Prison companies use complex maneuvers to stay open, and states can still choose with whom they work.

After all, the prison industry has been highly profitable, with two of the largest private prison companies in the United States earning 2.48 billion dollars and 1.98 billion dollars, respectively, in 2019.

However, as Pierucci put it, "this 'prison capitalism,' this race for profit at the expense of the most basic human rights, is degrading." Enditem

(Xin Ping is a commentator on international affairs, writing regularly for the Global Times, China Daily, etc. He can be reached at