What Came First: the Racism or the Profit Motive? On Private Prisons’ Push for SB1070

Originally published by Chaparral Respects No Borders on October 29, 2010

The private prisons’ involvement in passing SB1070 illuminates an aspect of the anti-immigrant tendency that complicates things and is often overlooked.  Often the finger is pointed at racism as the cause of atrocities like SB1070, without looking at the bigger picture.  This is not to say that racism plays no part, even as a basis on which the prison industrial complex functions, but the prejudicial views of Russell Pearce or the minutemen for example are not necessarily the main guiding force here.  This is particularly interesting when we consider the potential of white people to reject racism and see it as manufactured rather than intrinsic.

I’m glad that news is being spread of the role of the private prison industry in the passing of SB1070.  A few months back, Governor Brewer’s connections with the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the US were exposed, although of course they denied any underhandedness.  Now more information is coming out about the influence of private prisons in the new Arizona law, as NPR’s new report details.  While I don’t think there should be prisons in the first place, private prisons are particularly alarming in that this is the kind of thing that can happen when someone stands to profit (of course let’s not lose sight of the ways the government profits from repression in different ways).

The private prison industry has profited greatly in the past few years despite the economic downturn.  The Detention Watch Network says that “The U.S. government detained approximately 380,000 people in immigration custody in 2009 in… about 350 facilities at an annual cost of more than $1.7 billion.”  And the racists say that immigrants are a burden on the economy- how about the border enforcement?  Keep in mind here that this discussion is only on the detention centers- not on the border security technology and the wall, and other aspects of security which are all making people lots of money, including companies that have already made a shitload of money off the war.

An article that came out a few months ago (Wall Street and the Criminalization of Immigrants) discussed the lobbying efforts of CCA and the GEO group and how it paid off through more attacks on immigrants, who now fill the private detention centers.

The lobbying paid off for both companies, in huge revenue increases from government contracts to incarcerate immigrants. From 2005 through 2009, for every dollar that GEO spent lobbying the government, the company received a $662 return in taxpayer-funded contracts, for a total of $996.7 million. CCA received a $34 return in taxpayer-funded contracts for every dollar spent on lobbying the federal government, for a total of $330.4 million… One problem for major investors seeking huge gains from the for-profit prison business was that revenue rates couldn’t keep rising because federal agencies didn’t have enough personnel to arrest and process more immigrants than the expanded number they were now handling. It became apparent that the only way to significantly raise revenue through increasing the numbers of people picked up, detained and incarcerated was to hire more law enforcement personnel.

The private prison industry now needed a new source of low-cost licensed law enforcement personnel. CCA and GEO then turned to state governments as the focus of business expansion. Both companies stepped up efforts to acquire contracts with state and local governments that were entering into lucrative agreements with the Department of Homeland Security to detain immigrants in state and local detention and correctional facilities.

The result of this shift in business focus is exemplified by CCA’s role in Arizona’s SB 1070 and both CCA’s and GEO’s roles in other legislative efforts aimed at dramatically increased numbers arrests of undocumented immigrants in over 20 states. Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer, who received substantial campaign financing from top CCA executives in Tennessee and employs two former CCA lobbyists Chuck Coughlin and Paul Sensman, as top aides, signed SB 1070 into law on April 23.

On Friday, July 30, 2010 the Republican Governors Association, which so far this year has received over $160,000 in contributions from CCA and GEO, and their respective lobbyists, sent out a nationwide solicitation written by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer requesting contributions to fund an appeal of the partial injunction issued by a judge against SB 1070. (Read on).

The NPR report that just came out explains that CCA (and GEO group) also has some of their people in an organization called American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that Russell Pearce is also part of (described as a conservative, free-market orientated, limited-government group), and that this group developed SB1070 (limited government, my ass).  What is confusing is where Kris Kobach, the lawyer who works for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) comes into it, since he is said elsewhere to have authored the bill, although I know i’m not the only one wondering this.  I imagine FAIR has connections to private prisons, although I am not doubting FAIR’s genuine (not profit-driven) white supremacist views, even if many of their participants and funders are driven by profit and desire for law and order.

Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce says the bill was his idea. He says it’s not about prisons. It’s about what’s best for the country…

But instead of taking his idea to the Arizona statehouse floor, Pearce first took it to a hotel conference room.
It was last December at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C. Inside, there was a meeting of a secretive group called the American Legislative Exchange Council. Insiders call it ALEC…

It goes on,

Thirty of the 36 co-sponsors received donations over the next six months, from prison lobbyists or prison companies — Corrections Corporation of America, Management and Training Corporation and The Geo Group.

By April, the bill was on Gov. Jan Brewer’s desk.

In some ways, personal racism is convenient for exploitation for more profit: scare people into thinking immigrants are a threat (is Lou Dobbs and Fox news paid by CCA?), put them in private prisons, thereby creating profits for the private prison industry.  Yet, this implies that white supremacy existed before profit motives, which isn’t quite accurate.  Although colonialism and accompanying attitudes about non-Europeans existed, these prejudices and such weren’t so hardened along these imaginary race lines (just look at how the Irish were treated before being gradually included as white).  The concept of race was created on top of existing hierarchies, in the interest of maintaining order and capitalism.  Since i’m not feeling very articulate right now, I will leave you with a long quote from a friend’s blog giving more insight into how white supremacy developed (see below).  This was written in response to the National Socialist Movement’s efforts last year to organize here, and incidentally they will be back in a couple weeks to rally.  While I believe there should be visible opposition, I don’t believe that it is any more important to protest the nazis than it is to protest the police, or the prison industrial complex.  Like Peggy wrote, “The NAZIS putting all my people in prison are the ones I want to run out of town.”  I think most people who show up to these protests, at least the anarchists, tend to agree, although in practice it may not appear so.  Groups like Anti-Racist Action (ARA) have been long criticized nationally for focusing on white supremacists while institutional racism is the larger threat.  In fact if you think about it, if everyone is focusing on the 20-30 neo-nazis or the occasional hate crimes happening more and more across the country, we’re not focusing on the state-sanctioned murders that happen everyday (and what if we include the deaths caused by border security as well?)

In this description of the origins of white supremacy, you can see that the private prison industry is a prime example of the ways that white supremacy benefits capitalism.

The system of white supremacy is a cross-class alliance between rich whites and working class whites, the objective of which is the maintenance of the exploitative system of capitalism. White supremacy, by providing some meaningful, but in the grand scheme of things, petty privileges to whites, seeks to undermine class unity. These privileges are petty not because they aren’t real and sometimes meaningful, but because those that accrue to the white working class are much closer to the ones that non-white people get than they are to the ones that adhere to rich whites. That is, Bill Gates gets to exercise way more benefits of whiteness than the lowliest Nazi scumbag.

In exchange for accepting these privileges, however, whites agree to police the rest of the non-white population. That’s the reason white supremacy was created. Originating as an English imperial ideology for the conquest of Ireland and the rest of what we now call Britain, it moved to North America after the rich English elites had trouble with what we would now call a tri-racial alliance against them. Natives, English indentured servants (most of them transported here for petty crimes against the emerging capitalist system in England) and African slaves had a tendency to realize quite quickly in the so-called “New World” that they had much more in common with each other than with the pale-skinned, blue-blooded ruling class that lorded over them. So, they kept getting together and trying to overthrow those titled bastards. Again and again.

This was naturally a problem for the elite, so a hierarchical racialized system was created to divide this class, and to empower the wealthy. It was encoded in law. Whites were given several important privileges. Firstly, they were entitled to a limit on their servitude, while that of Africans was made permanent. Likewise, whites were given access to cleared Indian lands. The new role for whites demanded they act as police and, in relation to the native population, as soldiers. Therefore, a white man was obligated to serve in slave patrols and had the right to demand papers from any Black person he encountered. Likewise, no Native had any rights a white person was required to respect. Here in Arizona, Mexicans were repeatedly disenfranchised and expropriated of their land by white militias, vigilantes, soldiers and early police formations (Arizona Rangers were notorious). All this was backed up by the rich white elite who wanted to exploit Arizona’s resources. (Source).

See also this older article: How the Jailing of Migrants Drives Prison Profits.

UPDATE: see this video which is meant to partly answer the question of the title: Private Prisons in a Wider Context: Video


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