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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Miller

Economic Impact of Incarceration on Communities of Color

Updated: Jan 17, 2022

The era of mass incarceration can be described as a new tradition in American history, especial as it relates to racial and social class inequality. This paper argues that the foundation of the American slave trade helped to usher in both social and economic variables aimed at poor and poor urban African American communities. Supported by corporate greed, social investment, and political gain, that gathered to drive massive growth in the prison population. Based on the ability to hide in plain sight, incarceration and the outgrowth of the economic impact it has on vulnerable communities largely remain misunderstood.

Here are a few of the key factors that may help to illuminate the continuous and dramatic growth in America’s penal system.

While much has been written about the impact of incarceration on the family, the economic impact of communities of color, impacted by incarceration has been largely ignored. At first glance, it appears that in communities of color factories, and warehouses have been replaced with new erected prisons and jails. While the new form of employment for the generations without work seems to be anything illegal, followed by over-policing which leads to mass incarceration – a recipe that seems all too planned, to be coincidental. For lawmakers, local prison is an economic resource, creating jobs and a tax base left vacant by the fleeting factors of a decade ago. But for the community of color, poor communities these prisons, like garden weeds, they grow with increasing landscape, choking the life from their community, incarcerating their men and targeting their children – while hiding in plain sight.

Currently, the US is home to 5% of the world’s population but incarcerates a staggering 25% of the world’s prisoners (Kirchhoff, 2010). Outpacing countries like England, South Africa, and China combined. It is said, that there are more African American men, currently in prison, than were enslaved at the height of US slavery – 1850. Not only does America have the highest imprisonment rates of any country in the entire world, but it also has the highest rate of youth incarceration – over 130,000 juveniles are detained in the US every year, and on any given day there is more than 70,000 youth are arrested. It took America less than 45-years to reach this apex of mass incarceration, growing a massive 700 percent between 1970 and 2005. Outpacing both population growth and crime rates.

However, if we were to crown a winner in this race to incarcerate a generation, the winners would not be poor communities and communities of color, but the private prison companies that lurk in the shadows of the housing projects. Those industrial complexes that are made to look like institutions of higher learning – hiding in plain sight, making huge profits from both the incarceration of the community in which it is housed and prison labor in which it enforces. According to the American Civil Liberties Union in 2010 the two largest prison companies alone received nearly three billion dollars in revenue while their top executives each received annual compensation packages worth more than 3 million dollars.

Interestingly, private prisons did not exist before the early 1980’s. States and the federal government needed a solution to the overcrowding prison population. The modern private prison business first emerged and established itself publicly in 1984 when the Corrections Corporation of America, was awarded a contract to take over a facility in Hamilton County, Tennessee (Sentencing Project, 2017). Since that time the number of inmates caged in private prisons has increased by a massive 1,600 percent.

Their business model is simple – keep the prisons full. Corrections Corporation of America stated in their annual report that the demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts (CCA, 2010). For this Corrections Corporation of America spends millions to lobby politicians to stay tough on crime. According to The Associated Press between 2002 and 2012, private prisons spent around forty-five million dollars on lobbying states, federal governments, the election campaigns of governors, state legislators and judges (The Sentencing Project, 2014). A report by the National Institute on Money in State Politics revealed that between 2003 and 2011 the Corrections Corporation of America alone hired 200 lobbyists in 32 States while the second largest private prison – GEO hired 72 lobbyists in 17 states.

Studies show that crime rates in the US have been on the decline for the past decade – largely due to the efforts of President Barack Obama and the work of former Chief Justice Eric Holder. In order to counteract this decreasing popularity in mass incarceration, private prisons have rewritten their contracts to include prison occupancy rules – clauses that guarantee high prison occupancy rates, requiring 90 to 100 percent occupancy. Which means that if a prison is not filled, the state has to pay for the unused beds. This creates a win-win for the private prisons but a quandary for the vulnerable of that state.

Something to think about…

Glenn Kinnard-Brown,MS

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