Pubdate: Wed, 19 Mar 2014
Source: USA Today (US)
Copyright: 2014 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc
Author: David Person
Note: David Person hosts WEUP Talk on WEUP 94.5 FM/1700 AM in 
Huntsville, Ala., and is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.


Our nation is numb, President Obama said this month while announcing 
his My Brother's Keeper initiative. So numb that we are nonchalant 
about the overwhelming numbers of black and brown boys who end up in 
prison. "We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life, 
instead of the outrage that it is," Obama said.

What should disturb us even more is that prisoners have become a 
commodity, thanks to the growing relationship between private prisons 
and state governments. The states that go into business with 
for-profit prisons sign contracts that essentially agree to maintain 
quotas on the number of prisoners. If they can't keep the prison 
populations at the agreed upon levels, the states must pay the difference.

Younger, healthier inmates are most often minority

Often, private prisons also want inmates who are younger and 
healthier, which makes them less expensive to house. Older prisoners 
tend to be white, and younger inmates tend to be minorities, a fact 
supported by a recent study based on Bureau of Justice Statistics 
published in the Radical Criminology journal by University of 
California-Berkeley doctoral candidate Christopher Petrella.

In the nine states Petrella studied, the percentage of black and 
brown inmates is higher in the for-profit prisons than the 
state-owned ones. In Texas, for example, 69% of prisoners in these 
private institutions are people of color, compared with 57% in the 
public prisons. In California, 89% of private prison inmates are 
persons of color, compared with 76% in public facilities.

While private prisons currently house only 8% of the U.S. inmate 
population, its numbers are rising and the public prison population 
is declining. The two largest private prison companies are 
Corrections Corp. of America and The Geo Group. Together, they own 
and operate 132 facilities nationwide that generate $3.3 billion annually.

Michelle Alexander, author of the best-seller The New Jim Crow, told 
me that the process that matches what the private prisons want is 
already in place. "Our (minority) communities have been targeted in 
ways, particularly in the drug war, that would be unthinkable in 
white communities," Alexander said.

In the 1980s, as the war on drugs escalated, prison populations 
exploded, in large part as a result of mandatory minimum sentences. 
But in recent years, bipartisan congressional and Obama 
administration efforts have begun to ease the negative impact of the 
war on drugs.

In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, closing the wide 
disparity between sentencing for possession and sale of crack (used 
and sold more by blacks) vs. powder cocaine (used and sold more by whites).

Last year, when Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., co-sponsored the Justice 
Safety Valve Act to ease mandatory sentencing, he equated the war on 
drugs with racist Jim Crow policies.

Attorney General Eric Holder has urged shorter mandatory minimum drug 
sentences for non-violent offenders.

Hopefully, Petrella's study will help states rethink doing business 
with private prisons. But it should also awaken our nation to the 
immorality of selling prison cells to the highest bidder, and then 
using controversial quota policies to fill them with younger inmates, 
who tend to be predominantly black and brown.

If we continue to ignore this trend, our modern prisons will look no 
different from the plantations of old.
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