Season four of "Orange is the New Black" has just been released, and I’m sure I’m not the only person who watched the entire season in three days (or less). It’s easy to sit back on our couches and stuff pizza in our face while being entertained by this chilling, gut-wrenching drama, but it’s time we pay attention to the reality behind this fictional show. It’s time that this show ignites anger inside of us, anger targeted at the existence of privately owned prisons that breed the unjust living conditions that these women (along with many other real men and children) suffer because of them.
In season three of "Orange is the New Black," we saw the private prison corporation, MCC (Managing and Correction Corporation), take over Litchfield prison. At the very end of the season, we watched hundreds of new inmates flooded into the prison, as Litchfield prisoners stared in disbelief. We saw sexual abuse and violence on a guard-to-inmate level, shortages of necessary items such as maxi pads and medication and forced labor with minimum to no pay. In season four, we see a lack of correctional officer training and prisoners sent to solitary confinement without probable cause. The reality here is that none of this is foreign to private prisons today.
So let’s talk about private prisons. Private prisons (or for-profit prisons) are home to 19.1 percent of America’s federal prisoners and 6.8 percent of America’s state prisoners. According to the Washington Post, there are about 130 private prisons in America, amounting to 157,000 beds. Private prisons are owned by corporations: in OITNB’s case, MCC (or Management and Correction Corporation). The two largest for-profit prison operators in the United States are Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, which collect about $361 million in profits per year, according to "OITNB" author Piper Kerman in her article about for-profit prisons. These prisons use money from investments, which come from places like banks and private investors on Wall Street, and from contracts with the government after taking over government-run prisons. CCA’s profits have increased by 500 percent in the past 20 years, according to Truthout. Most private prisons have contracts with states, stating that the state guarantees the prison 90 percent occupancy and will pay for open beds otherwise. Some even promise 100 percent occupancy, and when this overflows, overcrowding occurs and some prisoners are often sent to solitary confinement due to a lack of beds. There is also a lack of food and supplies, as budgets usually do not increase when number of inmates increases. Private prisons are literally using human lives as a commodity to fill their quota, and paying incentives to politicians to keep them in favor of privatized incarceration.
The list of injustices that stem from these private prisons goes on and on. According to Outsider Club, assault rates in Mississippi prisons were three times higher in privately owned prisons than publicly owned. Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi chalked up an alarming rate of 27 assaults per 100 prisoners. Some for-profit prisons have numbers much larger than that. This is largely due to a chronic lack of sufficient staffing amongst private prisons nationwide. The more money a private prison spends training and hiring new staff, the less money they see in their paychecks. Private prisons are also home to nearly half of all detained immigrants in the United States. The incarceration rate for immigrants is only rising, as the number of immigrants is leveling off, and private prisons further encourage their incarceration. Prisoners also work for minimal to no pay, as for-profit prisons contract work from large corporations, such as Victoria’s Secret (in the 1990’s) to their prisoners. Victoria’s Secret is not alone, though. According to an article in Alternet, companies such as BM, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T Wireless, Texas Instrument (TI), Dell, Hewlett-Packard (HP), 3Com, Intel, Nordstrom's, Revlon, Macy's and Target have all used labor from incarcerated people, who were paid grievously less than minimum wage, and in some cases, paid nothing at all, all while the prison profited. Another issue is recidivism. Once prisoners are released, the rate of them reentering prisons is higher in private prisons than public ones. Just as Taystee wasn’t ready for life after release and ended up back at Litchfield, many other inmates that return to our most vulnerable communities will end up right back where they started, as they have not received any help reentering society. The money that should be used to help rehabilitate prisoners instead ends up in stockholder’s pockets. Prisoners are basically wasting their time in prison if they are not taught how to rehabilitate into society without turning to drugs, violence or other illegal acts. These are just a few of the places where we see privately-owned prisons doing the exact opposite of what prisons are intended to do, simply because of greed.
This corporate greed leads to all of the injustices we see in "Orange is the New Black," and also to money-grubbing scandals such as the Kids for Cash scandal, which occurred in my own back yard, Scranton Pennsylvania.
The documentary, “Kids for Cash,” (also available on Netflix) exposes another issue with privately owned prisons. The Kids for Cash scandal started unraveling in 2007, when parents of incarcerated juveniles started to take action against their children’s unlawful sentencing. Former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. and his boss, Judge Michael Conahan, reportedly took “kickbacks” from Robert Powell, owner of two private prisons. In summary, Judge Ciavarella wrongfully incarcerated children, giving them much longer sentences for low-rate crimes, crimes that would not even put most children in prison, because Powell, who needed to fill his prison cells to gain profit, bribed him to do so. This judge, because of approximately $2.6 million paid to him by a needy privately owned prison, denied children of their constitutional rights, such as the right to a legal counsel and the right to intelligently enter a plea, and sentenced hundreds of children to rot behind prison bars. That is the power of private prisons.
The fact that this bribe was even offered to Ciavarella is reason to wonder how often this scandal takes place, how many people sit right now in prison cells because of this corporate greed and lack of regard to basic human and constitutional rights. Children incarcerated under Ciavarella’s bribe have been released and retried, but nothing will ever wash the horror of their years in prison away from their memories. Time in prison changes people, and it takes an especially large toll on the emotions and lives of juveniles. Real people are physically and emotionally scarred during their time in these prisons, and this follows them even after they leave.The Kids for Cash scandal shows just how unethical some people can become in the face of greed, and how human lives can mean absolutely nothing to the owners of private prisons and everyone involved.
Spoiler alert: something terrible happens in season four of "Orange is the New Black." Some of you know what I’m talking about. The lack of training in correctional officers leads to the death of an inmate, an inmate who was only incarcerated for dealing small amounts of marijuana and trespassing, an inmate who was never violent. Instead of calling the police to assess and remove the body, the corporation MCC takes hours to think of ways to pin this death on the inmate before they decide to pin it on the correctional officer, only to cover the truth of which they are fully aware. This fatality is at the hands of MCC, a corporation that uses punishment for their own profit, which creates a domino effect of unjust treatment and authoritative ignorance, leading to the death of an inmate and emotional and physical suffering amongst every inmate left.
We stare intently at our computer screens, one tab on Netflix and one tab on Twitter, as we try to block out the spoilers before we can see it for ourselves. We gossip quietly to our friends who have seen the same episodes about the messed up events that occurred this season. We have all eyes on "Orange is the New Black." It’s time to start opening our eyes to private, for-profit prisons and the injustices that come along with them. It’s time we spoil it for everyone that once an American lands in a private prison, they are no longer treated like a human. They have become a number in the books and money in the top 1 percent's pocket. They are denied constitutional and human rights. Instead they are victims of simultaneous mass incarceration and lack of proper staffing. They are victims of corporate greed. Yes, they are criminals, (often only of small drug charges or unlawful immigration) but we send them to prison so that they can rehabilitate into proper citizens, yet instead we are failing them by emotionally and physically scarring them and letting them fall victim to a system that treats them as no more than a body filling a bed. And it’s time we open our eyes to what happens behind closed doors, behind prison bars, in the lives of these real human beings. They are more than money in the pocket of a successful business owner. They could be your children, your siblings, your spouses, your best friends.
Right now, the United States houses 25 percent of all incarcerated persons worldwide, while only contributing to 5 percent of the world’s population. This is not because we have more criminals, but because we sit back and let mass incarceration happen. Because we have found a way to capitalize prison sentences. Because we pay tax dollars on empty beds in private prisons. Because investors and board members turn a blind eye to the indecency to which they contribute.
I’ve finished season four of "Orange is the New Black," and I am more enraged now than ever. It’s time to speak up. If this makes you as angry as it does me, start by joining the movement to end for-profit imprisonment. ColorofChange.org targets numerous private prison investors, urging them to cut off support to these prisons. You can join their movement here. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) also acts to close private prisons and protect the inmates inside of them. You can join their movement here. Whatever you do, don’t do nothing. Don’t sit on your couch and cry about finishing OITNB in three days flat. Don’t release spoilers on Twitter about who gets murdered at the hands of an untrained CO. Get up and spread the word about the injustices that plague those victim to privatized imprisonment. Do something. Punishment should not profit anyone except society and the person gaining rehabilitation from the imprisonment. Investment in this injustice should not be comparable to investment in McDonald’s or Apple. Human lives have started to mean much less than that to the owners of private prisons, judges and investors, and it’s time to end that.
So go ahead, finish the season (seriously, everyone finish the season so that we can talk about it). And while you wait for next June, start doing something. Start exposing it, start writing about it, start supporting the movement. Start making people care.