Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is officially taking on the country’s private prison industry. By introducing a bill that would ban government contracts with private prisons, the presidential contender is quickly becoming the loudest advocate for criminal justice reform among his competitors.
The Justice is Not For Sale Act, co-sponsored by Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Bobby L. Rush (D-IL), would prohibit the federal government from entering contracts with private prison corporations within two years of the bill’s enactment. Instead, state and local government will be solely responsible for overseeing state and local correctional facilities.
“Study after study after study has shown private prisons are not cheaper, they are not safer, and they do not provide better outcomes for either the prisoners or the state,” Sanders said at a press conference Thursday.
In 2013, 8.4 percent of the 1.6 million inmates in federal and state prisons were locked away in prisons managed by private entities. By profiting off of the number of inmates as well as inmate labor, large corporations are primarily concerned with filling their prisons — leading to overcrowding and incentivizing the incarceration of people who commit low-level offenses. Poor management has led to the cruel treatment of people behind bars, who are denied medical services, brutalized by correctional staff, and subjected to inhumane living conditions. And because they are driven by profit, private prisons are less inclined to invest in rehabilitative services for inmates.
Raking in billions of dollars, two of the largest prison corporations, GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), are some of the most influential lobbyists in the country.
“In my view, corporations should not be allowed to make a profit by building more jails and keeping more Americans behind bars. We have got to end the private-for-profit prison racket in America,” Sanders said. “It is unacceptable that companies like Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group are spending tens of millions of dollars lobbying members of Congress and state legislatures all over this country to keep more Americans behind bars for longer and longer sentences. That has got to end.”
In addition to overhauling private prisons, the act calls for the reinstatement of federal parole guidelines for eligible prisoners to be released prior to completing their sentences. It eliminates the requirement that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) meet a 34,000 bed quota, which leads to the detention and abuse of undocumented immigrants to the financial benefit of prison corporations like GEO and CCA. And it also mandates the regulation of video and telephone services in correctional facilities, which overcharge inmates to the benefit of staff and corporate entities.
With this bill, Sanders is further positioning himself as one of the staunchest proponents of criminal — and racial — justice in the presidential race, setting himself apart from Democratic and Republican candidates alike.
Facing mounting pressure from Black Lives Matter activists, who interrupted two of his press events this summer, Sanders unveiled a comprehensive racial justice platform in August, emphasizing state-sanctioned violence against communities of color and specific policies to fix the broken justice system. In addition to outlawing private prisons, Sanders also favors banning the box to minimize job discrimination against convicted felons, restoring voting rights for convicted felons, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and putting greater emphasis on prison diversion programs. On Wednesday, Sanders met with Black Lives Matter activists to discuss future policy.
Sanders’ strong emphasis on state-backed violence and law enforcement’s role in it sets him apart from his immediate competition.
Martin O’Malley (D) was similarly targeted by Black Lives Matter protesters, after which he released his own criminal justice plan. His plan also covers fair sentencing, phasing out federal for-profit prisons, voting rights restoration, and economic justice for convicted felons. His platform does not, however, identify police as systemic perpetrators of violence against communities of color as Sanders’ does.
Hillary Clinton has vocalized the need for criminal justice reform, but has yet to outline a policy platform.