Book Review: Prison Profiteers. Who Makes Money From Mass Incarceration edited by Tara Herivel and Paul Wright

The United States has the dubious distinction of imprisoning the largest number of people of any country. With just five percent of the world’s population, the self-proclaimed ‘land of the free’ incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prisoners – approximately 2.3 million people.

Edited by public defender Tara Herivel and political activist Paul Wright, Prison Profiteers focuses on the “perversely motivated” private interests that coalesce to sustain and profit from this mass incarceration. The motley crew runs from the owners of private prisons and healthcare providers to riot training companies, telephone providers and the politicians, lawyers and banks who structure the deals to build new prisons.
Proponents of private prisons maintain the supposed market efficiency of privatisation brings lower costs, a superior service, a higher level of accountability and increased innovation. In contrast, the book’s eighteen original and previously published essays written by academics, journalists, legal experts and former prisoners highlight the inherent conflict between keeping shareholders happy and providing a humane and secure home for prisoners. For example, discussing privatised prison transport services Alex Friedmann argues the “need to lower costs and increase revenue has resulted in escapes, deaths, injuries, and mistreatment of prisoners.”
Judith Greene’s accessible chapter on the recent prison boom in the United States notes the private prison industry is dominated by two large corporations: Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group. The former currently has a market capitalization of $2 billion and 63 prisons spread over 19 states holding 70,000 beds.
Of course the profit motive is not the only reason why the US prison population exploded from the relative low of 700,000 prisoners in the late 1970s, but Greene argues “profits oil the machinery, keep it running, and speed the growth.” In particular she points to the $3.3 million corporations with a vested interest in the expansion of private prisons donated to candidates for states office and political parties during the 2002-04 election cycle.
With prison walls serving to limit outside scrutiny as well as keep prisoners locked in, Prison Profiteers shines a much needed light on the ongoing crime that is the American criminal justice system. The intricacies of state-level politics can be a little difficult to follow on occasion and the chapters themselves vary widely in quality and originality. Undoubtedly the collection works best when it gives space to the lengthy first person investigative journalism that quality American publications such as Harpers and the New Yorker do so well.
But before readers dismiss the problem as solely one of rampant American capitalism, it is worth bearing in mind the UK actually has a higher percentage of prisoners in private prisons than the United States (10.8 percent and 7.2 percent respectively). More importantly, according to the Prison Reform Trust some 25 percent of prisoners in England and Wales could be held in private prisons by 2014 if all new private prisons are built as scheduled. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Prison Profiteers. Who Makes Money From Mass Incarceration  is published by The New Press, priced £12.99.
*Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK.

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