Bernie Sanders to introduce legislation banning for-profit prisons

At a rally Monday night in Reno, Nevada, Bernie Sanders told an overflowing crowd that he will introduce legislation to prohibit for-profit prisons when Congress comes back from its August recess:

To be clear, the bill will go nowhere. Major private prisons such as Corrections Corporation of America, Geo Group and Cornell Companies are fairly well-seeded with many of the representatives you’d need in order to move such legislation forward.

Not only that, but the government has practically no motivation to regulate private prisons in any meaningful way because we don’t think of prisoners as being real people. We may be due for a bill requiring all prisons to have toilet paper — because that isn’t always a thing — but any member of Congress who votes for such a bill is asking to get Willie Horton’d. Since prisoners don’t vote, we don’t have to be nice to them.

Prisoner via Shutterstock

Prisoner via Shutterstock

That said, just because a bill isn’t going to pass doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be introduced. Private prisons are, in many respects, the biggest example of what’s wrong with America’s system of government that practically no one knows much about, and highlighting them is the first step toward eradicating them.

If one of the best cases for getting the private sector out of health care is that the demand for health care is inelastic — the people who consume it can’t choose not to — then that goes doubly for prisons. After all, there isn’t a “market” for prisoners; there’s a set number of people who the government has decided to send to prison — a number that for-profit prisons have every incentive to increase. This being the case, government has a natural monopoly on prisons: Given the same set of standards and goals, a single non-profit firm — that being the government — will operate prisons more efficiently than a set of competing firms that are all responsive to shareholders. The only things that make private prisons viable are their ability to lobby for preferential treatment and, alternatively, to ignore government standards altogether.

But therein lies the rub. With no push from constituents and a major push from well-funded lobbying efforts, private prisons are a profiteer’s dream. The government has been contracting out specific prison functions, such as medical services and food preparation, to the private sector for quite some time, but ever since the advent of the War on Drugs in the 1980s, an exploding prison population that stressed government facilities opened the door for private companies to take over whole prisons, since Congress certainly wasn’t about to spend money building enough prisons to absorb the consequences of mass incarceration (thanks, Reagan).

And the rest of the private sector took notice. Given how the government has ceded a natural monopoly to the private sector, and subsequently helped that sector grow by passing legislation that produces more prisoners who are more likely to become repeat offenders, there is a ton of money to be made. This has attracted large-scale Wall Street firms, who are even more deeply-embedded in Congress than the prison industry itself, to invest in large private prison companies.

So any noise in Congress calling for an end to for-profit prisons is good noise. It’s even better noise in a presidential campaign in which the Democratic frontrunner counts lobbyists for the private prison industry as some of their bundlers. Hillary Clinton may have tacked to the left on marriage, on climate, on campaign finance and even on capital gains since announcing her candidacy. She’s even written on Facebook that #BlackLivesMatter.

But private prisons remain an issue on which the difference between herself and Bernie Sanders could not be greater.

(h/t DailyKos)

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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