Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said Tuesday that he will introduce legislation to abolish private prisons, one piece of his comprehensive racial justice reform package that has won praise from Black Lives Matter activists.
“When Congress reconvenes in September, I will be introducing legislation which takes corporations out of profiteering from running jails,” the independent senator said at a campaign rally in Nevada.
Sanders released his racial justice platform last week after Black Lives Matter activists repeatedly disrupted his speeches in Seattle and Phoenix, demanding that he address racial inequalities in policing and in the criminal justice system. The platform he announced in response addresses both police violence against African Americans in the United States and the problems associated with mass incarceration.
Black Americans are imprisoned at six times the rate of whites, Sanders notes on his campaign website, and if the trend continues, one in four black males born today can expect to spend time in prison. One of the methods Sanders proposes to address mass incarceration is eliminating the private prison industry.
“It is morally repugnant and a national tragedy that we have privatized prisons all over America,” his website says. “In my view, corporations should not be allowed to make a profit by building more jails and keeping more Americans behind bars.”
Private prison companies have been the target of countless lawsuits over their rampant corruption, mistreatment of inmates, and inhumane conditions which have even led to the death of prisoners. Because the corporations are profit-driven, they have an incentive to cut corners on the care of their inmates and detainees to save money.
Currently, 16 percent of federal prisoners are housed in private prisons. The two largest prison corporations, GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, together take in $3.3 billion in annual revenue and the industry doubled in size between 2000 and 2010.
While several states including New York and Illinois have banned private prisons, it’s a tough battle for lawmakers to take up because of the massive amount of money the corporations pour into politics.
Activists groups have long criticized the growing political influence of the private prison industry — the National Institute on Money in Politics found that GEO contributed $6,051,178 to Republican, Democratic and third party candidates over the past 13 years. GEO and Corrections Corporation of America together have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts since 1989.
The corporations exert their influence on lawmakers in both statehouses and in the U.S. Capitol, especially those with influence on the immigration debate. A recent report found that private prison corporations spent $11 million over six years to lobby Congress to keep immigrants in detention centers.
On his website, Sanders also notes that “it is immoral to take campaign contributions from the private prison industry or its lobbyists.” Several Republican presidential candidates, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have taken significant contributions from the corporations. Rubio has a history of close ties to GEO and he has received almost $40,000 in campaign donations from the corporation during his career, according to the Washington Post.
Sanders’ announcement that he will introduce a bill to abolish private prisons makes him one of the first presidential candidate to speak out against the corrupt industry. Hillary Clinton has called for an end to mass incarceration, but she also receives significant financial contributions from lobbyists for two major private prison corporations.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has put forward a comprehensive criminal justice reform package, has also vowed to “phase out” federal for-profit prisons, including closing for-profit immigration detention centers.