An end to private prisons?

On Aug. 18 the U.S. Department of Justice announced it would soon begin to phase out private prisons due to safety concerns. The change was made due to numerous reports of abuse and neglect occurring in private, for-profit prisons that hold federal contracts.

The government began contracting with private companies to run prisons in the 1980s. Today nearly one in five federal prisoners are held in privately run prisons.

In addition to concerns about neglect and abuse, private prisons provide a perverse incentive to increase incarceration. This is because the contracts that private prison companies have with state and federal governments guarantee that a high percentage of these prisons will be filled, making the government more likely to lock people up.

Private prison companies have contributed millions of dollars to politicians to ensure that this cycle continues. It is little wonder, then, that the U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country. For decades now, African-American, Latino and Native American communities have borne by far the heaviest burden of this injustice.

While the government’s decision to phase out private prisons is welcome, it does not mean the total abolition of one of the most unjust aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system. Even if the federal government eventually terminates all of its contracts with private prisons, state governments can continue to have them. In 2014 more than 90,000 state prisoners were held in private prisons.

Furthermore, immigrants who are in federal detention are still allowed to be placed in private prisons, although this practice is under review. While it is a good sign that some federal prisoners will be housed in less abusive facilities, tens of thousands of other people will not be so fortunate without much greater changes.

According to The New York Times, the Justice Department has found that private prisons are “more violent and problematic than public prisons by many measures, including discovery of contraband like cellphones, reports of assaults and lockdowns.”

Many Anabaptists are familiar with prison ministries of one form or another. Jesus taught in Matt. 25:35 that when we visit those in prison it is as though we are visiting Jesus.

Prison ministry is important, but it should not be the only way we respond to injustice in the criminal justice system.

The continuation of private prisons and their systemic exploitations demonstrate failures of our society. This oppression has directly impacted many of our own families, churches and communities.

Heb. 13:3 tells us to “remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them.” Taking this verse to heart means advocating for broader changes in a deeply flawed system, as well as working with individuals.

Abolishing private prisons and the detrimental effects they have on the U.S. criminal justice system will take time and effort from many people. The government has shown signs that it is listening to those who are calling for change. It is time for Anabaptists to join those voices.

Joshua Russell is legislative assistant and communications coordinator for the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office. Story originally published on September 26, 2016. Reprinted with permission from Mennonite World Review.

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