With one in 45 adults on probation or parole and one in 100 behind bars, America looks like a nation of captives. From a business perspective, though, it’s a captive market.
Yet prison reform is gaining political currency. Both Republican and Democratic federal and state lawmakers have sought to soften sentencing policies and reduce the overall use of incarceration in criminal policy, and to facilitate “second chances” for the formerly incarcerated as they transition into work and family life. Yet, while politicians ostensibly seek more humane alternatives to incarceration, those being released will never quite leave prison behind. Not just because individuals will bear criminal records, but because the entire prison industry has already captured their communities on the outside.
Reform initiatives like rehabilitation and employment programs focus on making “corrections” less punitive. But they maintain the political framework of “redeeming” bad people, rather than dismantling antisocial systems. According to investigative research by American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the private prison industry is exploiting prison reform efforts by shifting from brick-and-mortar carceral facilities to outsourced social services.
In other words, many of the dollars expected to be “saved” from shuttering prisons may simply be funneled into privatized “alternatives to incarceration” like parole programs and halfway houses. These operations are often run by the household names of the prison business—they’re simply moving from behind bars to the so-called “treatment-industrial complex.”
According to AFSC’s research, the corporatization of prison reform is an outgrowth of a long-standing trend of prison privatization—corrections authorities contracting to outsource services such as food or long-distance calls home. Efforts to “decarcerate” may ostensibly reduce some business for private prison-industry companies. But carceral institutions and technology are being rebranded for the outside world, and profits from these emerging “security” sectors appear to be on the upswing: There is growth potential in halfway houses and treatment centers—perhaps minimally regulated and financed on a per diem basis. In the pre-trial stage, there’s demand for private probation (used in poor communities to coerce people owing fees and fines for petty infractions) and ankle-bracelet monitors (shackled to thousands of detained migrants who have been released on bond).