Attorney General Jeff Sessions is lackluster for a lot of reasons. He lied about having connections to Russia during his confirmation hearing. He very slowly decided to denounce President Trump’s grossly inappropriate comments about women. Now, he has rescinded the former Attorney General Sally Yates’s memo about phasing out private prisons.
As I’m sure is obvious, Sessions is on a not-so-short list of people that I feel are incapable of running a major arm of the government. However, regardless of my opinions, he is our Attorney General. That means we must continue protesting and making sure to pay attention to the things he does that might get swept under the rug in the general chaos of the new administration.
That means raising hell when we take steps backward in allowing major corporations to exploit the most vulnerable populations of our society. Private prisons have ridden the train of anti-blackness all the way to the station of mass incarceration and have ended up with billions of dollars in profit.
Let me start at the beginning of this mess, to see if we can piece it back to 2017 and Sessions.
Mass incarceration is the phenomenon that has caused the total incarcerated population to increase from approximately half a million in the 1980s to over two million in 2014. The size of the private prison population has also risen by 90 percent in the last 15 years. Private prisons have actually invested in practices that encourage incarceration.
These practices include, but are not limited to, policies like the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act signed by former President Bill Clinton. The act landed money for more cops on the streets and the construction of new prisons. Though later Clinton admitted to the potential negative consequences of his action, we still see policies being pushed through that result in disproportionately longer sentences. These policies are usually masked by euphemistically named initiatives like “crime prevention” and “job creation,” but are almost always ways to subjugate racial minorities, especially Black men.
Following the Civil War and the end of slavery, the modern prison system in America has had the sole function of locking up Black men and exploiting their labor (as seen in 13th by Ava DuVernay). Young Black men also have a three in four chance of being incarcerated in their lifetime (a statistic pointed out by Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow). The same statistic is one in seventeen for white men. Those numbers don’t lie, and there are obvious cultural and economic forces that have resulted in those discrepancies.
Mandatory minimums are a good example of the types of policies that blindly shove people into prisons. This policy means that judges must sentence offenders to a minimum amount of time regardless of the extenuating circumstances of the crime. For certain drug-related offenses, Black people are disproportionately given high sentences. For example, the possession or transport or intent to sell crack cocaine comes with a minimum sentence that is exorbitantly higher than that for powder cocaine. This unfairly targets the poor Black folks that have more commonly used crack cocaine.
These policies do not come from thin air or sheer racism or greed. They are created at think tanks that politicians and special interests (or corporations) are part of—most notably, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC has been handing legislation that has been created by and for corporation profit to Republicans for over 45 years.
Not only do the contributing corporations have a direct hand in influencing the types of issues that are raised, but they have the money to hire the best and brightest to create solutions that further grow their pocket books and hurt the American people.
It is important to note that ALEC is excited by the opportunity to work with the new administration. In a press release dated just a month before the inauguration of our new President, ALEC claimed it would be playing a major role in the new White House. They stressed the necessity of a fresh, “free-market” approach to our country’s situation and suggested that they may be the ones with the solution.
This is almost comical, considering that ALEC is responsible for pushing some of the most damaging legislation that frames the conversation about incarceration. Explicitly with the intent of increasing the profits of certain member groups, also. Even while we’re experiencing and living through the disastrous consequences of ALEC’s actions and suggestions, they are pushing the agenda that they are the cutting-edge.
And here we’ve come full circle. Private prisons have little to do with meeting “future needs” and more to do with meeting future dollar amounts. And these organizations are claiming ownership over the next administration’s decision making. It only begs the question: whose pocket is Jeff Sessions in, and how far is he willing to go to turn a profit for them?
Simone Bishara is a third-year at Pitzer College studying Sociology. She hopes to one day pursue a career in juvenile justice.