EJI director Bryan Stevenson spoke with PBS host Tavis Smiley about mass incarceration in the United States, which imprisons more of its citizens than any other nation in the world.
The jail and prison population has increased from 300,000 to 2.3 million in the past 40 years. We spent $6 billion on prisons in 1980, Stevenson explained, and a staggering $80 billion annually today, taking critical resources from public education, highways, health care, and other vital public services.
A key driving force for this tremendous increase in state and federal governments’ use of incarceration is the private corrections industry. A small handful of corporations have cornered the market on private prisons and other correctional services including food, medical care, and phone calls. These companies employ dozens of lobbyists and spend millions of dollars to incentivize keeping people in jail or prison. “It’s very corruptive of our justice system,” said Stevenson.
Mr. Stevenson spoke about a growing campaign to get companies to divest from investments in private prisons and cited the recent divestment of $60 million from several companies at the end of last year. Private prisons collect more than $2 billion a year from states and the federal government to house prisoners. They spend millions of dollars to lobby legislators for policies aimed at keeping the prison population high. States are often required to guarantee occupancy rates at private prisons that range from 80 to 100 percent.
On last night’s episode of Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver flagged the corruption inherent in entrusting rehabilitation to for-profit corrections corporations by exposing that private prison company the GEO Group uses its high recidivism rates to lure investors. Oliver condemned the barbaric treatment of prisoners, including Americans’ failure to take seriously the problem of prison rape. “It is so easy not to care about prisoners,” he said.
The satirist implicated all Americans in the need to address prison reform by concluding the segment: “America’s broken prison system is brought to you by decades of neglect, a lack of political courage, a generous donation by the GEO Group, as well as viewers like you.”