Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration? - Review

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Edited by Tara Herivel and Paul Wright

Reviewed by Matt Lowen

The for-profit private prison industry has received enormous attention in the last couple years for the prominent role it has played in public debates over immigration reform and anti-immigration legislation, as well as for its egregious mismanagement of prison facilities. But the roots of prison privatization plunge much more deeply into U.S. history than news from recent years might suggest. The publication of Prison Profiteers in 2007 was instrumental in focusing some well-needed public attention on the powerful position that the private prison industry has held within the U.S. system of mass incarceration for many years. 

In this cross-disciplinary anthology, the editors of Prison Profiteers offer readers a variety of expert voices that address the vast scope of prison privatization.  From Judith Greene’s critical historical analysis of the beginnings of the for-profit private prison industry to Paul von Zielbauer’s scathing critique of privatized healthcare in prisons, the chapters of this book delve deeply into the dangers of placing profit over humanity. 

While the public generally understands that the simple practice of incarceration is massively expensive to taxpayers, the huge inflationary impact that prison privatization has on the overall cost of incarceration is generally not understood at all. Demonstrating a nuance that is rarely achieved in any national dialogue about the criminal justice system, Prison Profiteers explains some of the hidden economics behind mass incarceration.  For instance, it examines the financial ramifications of shifting prison populations from urban to rural settings, the practice of shifting costs of the criminal justice system onto the backs of defendants, and more.

This book makes clear that the sky is the limit when it comes to opportunities for private industry in the world of mass incarceration. From prisoner transportation, to prisoner phone services, to Tasers used by prison staff, and even to faith-based programs inside prison facilities – privatization can be found in nearly all corners of the prison and criminal justice systems.

Where Prison Profiteers really shines is in its ability to demonstrate the problems of prison privatization while never losing sight of the larger specter of mass incarceration in this country.  Recent media attention on private companies (Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group, etc.) making millions on the backs of detained immigrants has been deservedly negative. Such stories, however, often fail to situate critiques of the private prison industry within the broader context of mass incarceration.  

Simply put, although Herivel and Wright’s volume is now seven years old, it remains the best and most relevant entrée into the vast and varied world of prison privatization.  It is expertly conceived – each stand-alone chapter brilliantly holds its own, and together the chapters give a resounding rebuke to a powerful industry that is reaping millions off our national dependence on mass incarceration. Prison Profiteers is a must-read for anyone who seeks to refute the so-called logic that tries to justify the prison industrial complex. ~~~

Matthew Lowen is the Associate Program Director in the Arizona office of American Friends Service Committee, where he has worked since 2005.  He focuses primarily on solitary confinement and immigrant detention in Arizona. Matt received a BA in Justice, Peace, and Conflict Studies from Eastern Mennonite University and is completing an MA in Geography at the University of Arizona.