This article was written by Bethany Morris, a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service; a team of immigration lawyers based in the US & UK

In response to the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, Black Lives Matter protests have continued across the globe, highlighting the injustices, prejudice and mistreatment of Black citizens at the hands of the police. As this racism continues to be unearthed, the movement’s focus has shifted to the prison industrial complex in the US, and how people of colour are exploited to generate profit for those who run them.

The Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) is a term used to describe the mass incarceration and corporatisation of prisons which, in some places, now have a diminished focus on rehabilitation and a sharper focus on generating profit. In the US, privatisation and mass incarceration drive profit; the largest private prison company in the world, CoreCivic, recorded a share rise of 40% when President Trump was elected. 

Black citizens are disproportionately impacted by the corporatisation of the prison industrial complex. This has stemmed primarily from Richard Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’ which, under the guise of protecting American citizens, has allowed the police to harass and arrest people merely under the suspicion of possessing drugs. This destroyed Black communities in America in the 1970s with many finding themselves wrongly accused and targeted by police simply for the colour of their skin. The war on drugs went hand in hand with mass incarceration and police brutality too, with the number of those incarcerated rising from 300,000 to the current figure of 2.3 million. Although it has been almost 50 years since the war on drugs was founded, its impact on Black communities has not been left behind.

In the US, it is estimated that $182 billion is spent on incarceration each year, with the majority of this money funding court costs, parole, probation and running of facilities. Current figures suggest that in the US today, around 1.8 million people are behind bars, many of them Black; this dramatic increase in incarceration can be owed to the extreme sentences given to prisoners for non-violent and often minor offences which could be resolved with the use of community service or fines. This has allowed prisons to become labour-intensive institutions, as they provide year-round employment. These are essentially ‘recession-proof’ and provide huge financial boosts to economically depressed regions. For example, the town of Dannemora now has more inmates than inhabitants. The PIC now supplies around $425 million in annual payroll to the area. As the complex continues to grow, the lines between public and private interests have become blurred. A directory named the Corrections Yellow Pages now has over one thousand vendors offering services to the complex, ranging from bullet-resistant security cameras to ‘B.O.S.S.’ or body orifice security scanners. The large-scale corporatisation of the prison system has now increased to include collaboration between Wall Street investment banks, private health care companies and food companies.

As well as being a government service, the PIC has become a big (and booming) business for the states. Privatization has had a huge role to play and since the Clinton administration, private prisons have become increasingly legitimized with thousands of minimum-security inmates placed in private correctional facilities each year. The economics of private prison systems have been likened to the hotel industry; the higher the occupancy rate, the higher the profit margin.

The PIC has huge influence over immigration detention too. Corporate and government interests overlap when it comes to detention, surveillance, the construction of border walls and consulting services. In the US, recent figures indicate that as many as 52,000 people are currently being held in immigration detention facilities. Two-thirds of these facilities are run by private companies such as the GEO group and CoreCivic. The corporate influence on immigration detention has grown significantly, particularly in regard to surveillance; software giants Palantir have signed a $38 million contract with ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement) to perform data case management and analytics.

For private prison corporations, the increase in detainees has generated even larger profits. Since the late 1990s, numbers have increased dramatically and on average, ICE detains around 33,000 immigrants, more than tripling since 1996. In 2010, private prison companies CCA and GEO reported annual revenues of $1.69 billion and $1.17 billion. Surprisingly however, in recent years the US has reported some of its lowest numbers of border crossings meaning that for private companies, pressure is increasing to raise the number of those in detention. This means that those who find themselves detained, primarily people of colour, are detained solely for the premise of generating wealth for the private companies who have been outsourced to supply these services.

Although privatisation and mass incarceration are huge issues facing Black citizens in America, they are a threat in the UK too, where the PIC and immigration detention centres are similarly being privatised at an alarming rate. Many countries are now beginning to adopt similar approaches to the US which focus on mass incarceration to drive profit, disproportionately impacting people of colour across the globe. Government services that should be focused on rehabilitation have become centred around the exploitation of the incarcerated solely for the benefit of major corporations.