None of these candidates are committed to abolishing private prisons because each of them have investments in the very things that allow for prisons of any kind to exist.
Bernie Sanders recently tweeted that he wants to end “private prisons and detention centers” in the united states. This has been a sentiment expressed by many of the presidential candidates in this upcoming election, including: The Top Cop, Kamala Harris; self-proclaimed capitalist, Elizabeth Warren; and Joe Biden, who served as Vice President to a man nicknamed ‘Deporter in Chief’ for having deported the most undocumented immigrants in america’s history.
The issue I choose to center this essay around is the hyperfocus on “private” prisons. However, what we must first contend with is that no one who calls themselves a “top cop” or a “capitalist to the bone,” nor anyone who holds the second most powerful office in the world for eight years and assists in the record-breaking number of deportations, could ever truly be committed to closing prisons. Private or otherwise.
Each of these candidates exist as two sides of the same coin. Policing cannot exist without capitalism; capitalism cannot exist without slavery; slavery cannot exist without borders. Said differently: irrespective of how radical these candidates choose to position themselves over the other, Harris cannot exist without Warren who cannot exist without Biden who cannot exist without the very office that each of them, Bernie included, are running for.
Earlier this year, I defined capitalism as:
“Capitalism is a socioeconomic system under which all means of production—or resources specifically used to produce goods—are privately owned by individuals and companies. Through this system, these people and companies, which help make up the bourgeoisie class, make most of the decisions in society and own most of the property.”
The only way that this system is made possible is through the colonization of African nations, and the enslavement of African people by Europeans. This is to say: to produce the slave—and consequently (anti-)Blackness—is to also produce the subjugation of African peoples and nations. That is capitalism. That is also the very thing Warren claims she is “to the bone”—a chilling revelation when put into context.
Similarly, america got its modern-day police force through slave patrols tasked with capturing runaway slaves and preventing any slave revolts. Much like post-colonial borders were created by Europeans in Africa to divide the nation for their own political and socio-economic gain, slave patrols were intended to keep their laborers and currency separated from what they understood as freedom, which required the construction and preservation of “state” lines. The entire system of policing is predicated on the very existence of the slave, the criminal, and the creation of borders as a means by which to further criminalize the slave. This is who Harris and Biden proudly proclaim themselves to be.
For this reason, I know that none of these candidates are at all committed to abolishing private prisons because each of them have investments in the very things that allow for prisons of any kind to exist: police, borders, and criminals as capital.
Nevertheless, “progressive” presidential hopefuls have long-positioned themselves as people who understood and understand the issue with prisons. Beyond what is stated above, what makes it clear that they are committed to intentionally running from language that is actually radical is that they always use language like “criminal justice reform,” “no more private prisons,” or “police accountability” instead. Each of these phrases act as vague answers to issues that are far more to-the-point: prisons and police must be abolished. Full stop.
Be that as it may, this language politicians use is very intentional. It is an intentional way for them to make their platforms sound much more radical than they actually are.
According to a report by The Sentencing Project: as late as 2017, private prisons made up only 8.2% of the united states’ overall state and federal prison population. And with the private prison industry having reached its peak in 2012, those numbers have already begun to drop. In total, the private prison industry represents just roughly 121,718 incarcerated people. In contrast, according to a report done by the Prison Policy Initiative, nearly 2.3 million people in the united states are in state and federal prisons, juvenile correctional facilities, local jails, Indian Country jails, and military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.
Worse still, these several million people are locked in cages at the expense of taxpayers’ dollars while never getting the opportunity to be properly rehabilitated. They are no more than a body, a slave, forced to produce near-free labor on behalf of the state, or private business owners, while companies like Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group—both of which have donated to presidential campaigns—generate more than $2.53 billion from said labor.
To state this more explicitly: the prison industry is a multi-billion dollar project, with or without private prisons. And it is an industrial complex which requires that, mostly Black, people are always seen as currency, laborers, and criminal. This is not a plea for Bernie or any of the candidates to reckon with this truth. To be aligned with the state, especially as an establishment politician, is to already know this truth and not care. I do not expect the state to care for the slave any more than I expect whiteness to do away with the evilness that is innate to its very being.
This is also, however, how I know that criminal justice “reform” could never work. You cannot reform that which was created to enslave. You cannot reform the evils of colonialism or white supremacy when that evil is what allows for them both to persist. You cannot reform that which is established to dominate. All you can ever do to fix that is destroy it.
So I write this, not to the politician, but to the colonized; in hopes that we may all see past the smoke and mirrors. Neither Bernie Sanders, nor Elizabeth Warren, nor Kamala Harris, nor Joe Biden—and all other politicians who use this language—can ever be invested in true abolition because their very being depends on the existence of cages. Which leads me to this: a world without private prisons is still a world with slaves.