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The Color of Corporate Corrections: Overrepresentation of People of Color in the Private Prison Industry

by Christopher Petrella and Josh Begley

While data generated by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and state departments of corrections (DOCs) have long demonstrated persistent racial disparities in rates of incarceration, no comparative study until now has considered the racial composition of select state-contracted, privately-operated prisons around the nation. We selected California, Texas and Arizona for our examination because they warehouse some of the largest numbers of prisoners in private, for-profit prisons. Taken together, these three states account for over 30 percent of all prisoners held in privatized correctional facilities in the United States.

Our research indicates that although people of color are already overrepresented in public prisons relative to their share of state and national populations, they are further overrepresented by approximately 12 percent in state-contracted correctional facilities operated by for-profit private prison firms. Not only is the overrepresentation of people of color in private prisons a matter of public concern, it also begs some previously unconsidered questions.

Our conclusions are based on the latest U.S. Census demographic figures available through the Prison Policy Initiative’s “Correctional Facility Locator 2010,” cross-referenced with prisoner population directories available on state DOC websites and statistical information procured through public records requests filed with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

In order to avoid artificially inflating the over-incarceration of people of color in for-profit prisons we intentionally excluded figures from federal detention centers controlled by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. Marshals Service and detention facilities managed at the local level. For similar reasons, we strategically excluded data from transfer centers, work release centers, community corrections facilities, special treatment centers, reception centers and any facility with a population of under 500 persons.

The data revealed that 89 percent of California prisoners housed in private prisons are people of color, compared with 75 percent in public correctional facilities. In Texas, 71 percent of the prisoners held in privately-operated facilities are people of color, compared with 66 percent in public prisons. And in Arizona, 65 percent of the private prison population is composed of people of color, in comparison with 60 percent in public prisons.

Our findings help to underscore the notion that the private prison industry has represented an experiment in racialized profiteering from its very inception. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA)—the nation’s oldest and largest for-profit prison company, which now controls 43 percent of the corrections market—received its first contract in 1983 from the now defunct Immigration and Naturalization Services, the agency primarily responsible for detaining immigrants, who are most often classified as people of color. Sadly, this trend persists today.

According to stipulations set forth in a 2007 CDCR memorandum, the state of California prioritizes previously-deported prisoners and/or prisoners with active or potential ICE holds for transfers to out-of-state private prisons—a policy that disproportionately impacts people of color. This policy alone accounts significantly for the overrepresentation of people of color in out-of-state facilities operated by for-profit prison companies that contract with California.

The overrepresentation of people of color in private prisons indicates they are disproportionately siphoned away from public prisons—precisely the types of facilities that provide the greatest access to educational and rehabilitative programs and services. Such an overrepresentation suggests that the incarceration of people of color, compared to “non-Hispanic whites,” functions, in part, as a source of profit extraction. Whereas the primary objective of public corrections agencies is the promotion of public safety through rehabilitation (at least in theory), private prison firms are first and foremost accountable to their shareholders. Companies like CCA are legally obligated to generate profit and increase shareholder value—an imperative that inherently compromises any significant commitment to rehabilitation, re-entry or recidivism reduction.

Although research pertaining to the racial composition of private prison populations is still emerging, we hope that our findings will generate substantive discussion relative to the relationship between race and prison privatization in the United States. Above all, we are optimistic that this study, limited as it is, will inspire policies aimed at eliminating the for-profit prison industry—an industry that disproportionately commoditizes people of color.

Christopher Petrella is a doctoral candidate in African American Studies at U.C. Berkeley. His dissertation is entitled “Race, Markets, and the Rise of the Private Prison State.” Josh Begley is a graduate student in Interactive Telecommunications at NYU.

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