The Intersection Between Private Prisons, Immigration, and Race

The private prison system has grown into a multimillion-dollar industry, which can be partially attributed to strict immigration laws that use racial profiling as a means of mass incarcerating immigrant populations. As corporate officials utilize these laws, such as Arizona’s S.B. 1070, to gain more inmates in their private prisons, they continue to perpetuate the racism that plagues the entire prison industrial complex.

As state prisons accepted fewer inmates, the need for more facilities increased. The private sector then emerged on the prison scene and established private prisons to hold approximately 8% of prisoners in the United States, counting for more than 126,000 inmates (“Private Corrections Institute, Inc.”).

The shift towards prison privatization opened new doors for corporations to make a handsome profit. Private prison corporations, such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, manage and house inmates in private facilities while receiving daily earnings for each inmate. These corporations continue to reap large revenues as long as their facilities are full (Shapiro).

Private prison owners look to new inmate sources, such as the immigrant population, to fill their prisons. As lawmakers tighten immigration laws, law enforcement officers detain more undocumented immigrants and place them in state, federal, or private prisons. CCA and GEO join and support lobbying groups, such as American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), to lobby for restrictive immigration laws (Sullivan). These laws ensure more inmates in private prison cells, and therefore more money in corporate wallets.

One of the laws that prison corporations lobby for and benefit from is Arizona’s S.B. 1070, which has both encouraged and increased the use of racial profiling. Due to this law, police officers detain more immigrants because it authorizes officers to consider race as a factor in identifying an undocumented immigrant (Archibold). As law enforcers continue to incarcerate more immigrants based off race as a form of reasonable suspicion, corporations can capitalize on the aspect of racial profiling in such policies.

Corporations lobbying for restrictive immigration law and the increase of immigrants in prisons cause negative implications of how United States society views immigrants. With more undocumented immigrants being mass incarcerated by law enforcement, society may view the population as dangerous and criminal. This oppositional view of immigrants intensifies the stereotypical outlook on races associated with immigration and justifies mistreatment and discrimination against people of those races.

Similar to the capitalist nature of slavery, people running private prison systems reap benefits at the expense of racial “others”. Coined by sociologist Émile Durkheim, the concept of the “other” refers to a figure in the reciprocal relationship of definition with its opposite. In order for one form to exist, its opposite must exist as well. As E. C. Cuff, Wes W. Sharrock, and D. W. Francis explain in their work “Perspectives In Sociology,” the “others” suffer negative consequences when society favors its opposite: “some individuals…pay the price of other people’s comfortable and comforting sense of themselves” (249). Capitalists rely on the racial other identified in immigration populations in order to remain superior in existence and to profit from the private prison industry at the immigrants’, or the others’, expense.

Cuff, Sharrock, and Francis also explain how society’s rejection of the “others” is encouraged through social control: “ their position on or outside the boundaries of conventional society is coercively endowed and punitively enforced” (249). From a historical perspective, sociologists draw connections between the social construction of race and societal structures in place that control society’s perception of race and conception of the “other”.  In their work “Theories of Race And Racism,” John Solomos and Les Back refer to sociologist John Rex and his theory on race and its relationship with structural conditions. Rex claims that structural conditions such as “unfree, indentured, or slave labour” and “migrant labour as an underclass fulfilling stigmatized roles” cause the way in which society portrays race: “the study of race relations is concerned with situations in which such structured conditions interacted with actors’ definitions in such a way as to produce a racially structured reality” (5). Due to the socially unequal relationship between private prison capitalists and immigrants of color, capitalists successfully define immigrants as the racial “others” through exploitation. And as a result of this racial consciousness adopted by society, capitalists continue to take advantage of immigrants for profit and use race as a tool for maintaining the industries, laws, and structures that bring capitalists more power and diminish immigrants’ presence in United States society.

In support of this analysis, please click the following link to view a video made by Cuéntame, an organization that seeks to raise awareness about social issues affecting the Latino community: Immigrants For Sale. The video provides a summary of the private prison industry’s inner workings regarding corporations, the law, and the immigrant population in the United States.

Discussion Questions:

In light of Alabama’s anti-immigration law, how does race play a role in the intersection between prison labor and immigration labor? How does society view these connections?

In the past, how have capitalists taken advantage of racial divides by utilizing the law? What was the subsequent racial impact(s) on United States society?

References:

Archibold, Randal C. “Arizona Immigration Bill Divides Law Enforcement.” The New York Times 21 Apr. 2010. Web. 26 Nov. 2011.

Back, Les, and John Solomos. Theories of race and racism: a reader. Psychology Press, 2000. Print.

Cuff, E. C., Wes W. Sharrock, and D. W. Francis. Perspectives in sociology. Psychology Press, 2006. Print.

Immigrants For Sale. 2011. Cuéntame. Film. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=vuGE1VxVsYo>

“Quick Facts About Prison Privatization.” Private CorrectionsInstitute, Inc.. Private Corrections Institute, Inc., n.d. Web.  <http://www.privateci.org/private_pics/Private prison fact sheet 2009.pdf>.

Shapiro, David. “Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration .” ACLU: American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU, 2 November 2011. Web. <http://www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights/banking-bondage-private-prisons-and-mass-incarceration>

Sullivan, Laura. “Prison Economics Help Drive Ariz. Immigration Law.” NPR: National Public Radio. Anne Hawke, 18 November 2011. Web. <http://www.npr.org/2010/10/28/130833741/prison-economics-help-drive-ariz-immigration-law?ps=rs>.

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