Creating Change: Lessons From a Private-Prison Victory

Richard Eskow

Sometimes you win.

That can be an unfamiliar sensation for people on the left. When you fight for good causes, against powerful forces and overwhelming odds, you lose a lot of battles.

But sometimes you win. Take last week’s announcement from the Justice Department that it’s planning to phase out the use of for-profit prisons. Like many such victories, it is only a qualified success. But qualified success is still success.

This victory seemed politically impossible as recently as last year. What changed? Like many such victories, it began with consciousness. Attacks on the “prison industrial complex” were once considered the province of radical activists and crusading (but possibly lonely) left journalists.

Some church groups got wind of the issue in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s and divested themselves of for-profit prison stock. Writers and thinkers and activists continued to shine a light on the problem. Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” has been writing about this issue for years. Books like “Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money From Mass Incarceration” explored the issue in depth.

Journalists – from the Nation, the Marshall Project, Mother Jones, and elsewhere – have continued to provide the public with more information about the problem. Activists in the communities that have suffered most from incarceration, including Black Lives Matter, fought to highlight the problem.

The idea entered the mainstream world of electoral politics last year, when Bernie Sanders made it a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. That move was met with some surprise in insider circles, since prison reform has long been considered a “hard left” issue. Progressive organizations picked up the banner.

Soon Hillary Clinton felt compelled to return the campaign contributions she had received from lobbyists who represent for-profit prisons. Within months she was telling Black Lives Matter activists that she, too, would close down for-profit prisons if she became president.

And now comes this decision from the Justice Department. This idea moved from the margins of our political discourse to its heart. In this brief history, we can see something like a life cycle begin to take shape:

An idea was brought into consciousness.

It was written about and discussed.

Then activists promoted it – in the streets, in conversations, and in organized campaigns

And it became part of an insurgent political candidacy.

Now, despite big money’s overwhelming hold on our two-party system, it has become the de facto position of the Democratic Party. Concrete action has been taken. The New York Times Editorial Board, that national arbiter of liberal thought, has echoed the message that private prisons are corrupt, violent, inefficient and wasteful.

There’s much more to be done. Only about 8 percent of federal inmates – less than 23,000 people – are housed in for-profit prisons. The vast majority of people in the for-profit prison system are incarcerated in state or local facilities, and won’t be affected by this decision. For-profit facilities for detaining immigrants – where some of the worst abuses have taken place – won’t be affected by this decision.

Profiteering will continue to impact the lives of federal prisoners through corporate ventures that provide medical care, phone and video calls, and even ankle bracelets.

What’s more, the affected prisoners represent a tiny fraction of the 2.2 million Americans currently in prison.

Much more needs to be done. The carceral state runs on greed, on racism, on social control, on fear and on vengeance. These forces are not easily eliminated. The commodification of human bodies, especially black and brown bodies, will continue.

But this is a victory all the same – an instructive one.

Lesson #1: We can’t depend on political leaders to change the system. Change is an inside/outside game, and it usually happens from the outside in. It took the radical visionaries, the street activists, the writers, the church groups, Bernie Sanders and the progressive organizations to make this happen. Lastly, it took insiders willing to listen and respond.

Together these forces form a kind of ecosystem. Want to change things? Find a place there and inhabit it.

Lesson #2: 23,000 prisoners are a tiny fraction of this nation’s bloated prison population. Still, an improvement to the lives of 23,000 people is worth celebrating.

That improvement can be used to communicate the need for much broader change – not only in the management of our current prison population, but in the more fundamental problem of our nation’s destructive addiction to incarceration. Like all addictions, it’s a parasite that is destroying the host. When we internally colonize millions of our own people, we undermine our society from within.

This can also become a teaching moment regarding our political system’s misguided infatuation with privatization. Politicians in both parties have told us for decades that the private sector is better than government at providing many public services. Our experience with for-profit prisons has taught us otherwise, as has our experience with highways and other privatization projects.

That makes this an opportunity to renew our understanding of the social compact. It allows us to emphasize the value of communitarian idealism over individualistic greed.

The task is profound, challenging, and daunting. There will be many setbacks. The moral arc of the universe may bend toward justice, but it can look more like a jagged line than a curve. If you take on this work you will lose, over and over. That’s a fact of life. But here’s another:

Sometimes you win.

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