Evenhanded investigation of private prisons, focused on industry opacity and the moral problems behind its largely unchecked growth.
Former New York City assistant district attorney Eisen, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, utilizes both criminal justice narrative and financial analysis to address her query: “what does the increasing reliance on the private prison industry since the 1980s mean for American justice?” She begins with the familiar, disturbing narrative of how the drug war and tough-on-crime policies created a culture of mass incarceration. In the ’80s, Ronald Reagan turned hostility toward bureaucracy into a drive toward privatization for all aspects of governance. A fast-growing corporate structure was thus positioned to sell itself as a solution to the overcrowded prisons that resulted. The author illustrates how the industry has mushroomed, primarily through the establishment of powerful lobbying and exploitative income streams from all aspects of imprisonment. “The nation’s prison industrial complex relies on a vast infrastructure of financial incentives,” she writes. She also coolly documents the moral questions raised by this situation. “The very existence of private prisons,” she writes, “let[s] policy makers off the hook for recalibrating our nation’s system of punishment.” Eisen shows how private prisons have proven a risky investment for small towns; she visited some in which a private prison’s oscillating fortunes led to economic collapse. The author also discusses related issues such as the recent movement for colleges to divest and the industry’s inroads into immigrant detention in the Trump era. Eisen regards the industry as having dubious motives, exacerbated by their consistently giving her the PR runaround—though she visited some facilities—but she also takes a fairly restrained critical stance, believing the volatile industry to be firmly entrenched but in need of better monitoring arrangements. It's an admirably researched look at an ominous aspect of criminal justice, though it may seem dry to casual readers or mild to progressives.
Important documentation of the free market’s aggressive intersection with the war on crime.