Mass Incarceration and Private Prisons

The Department of Justice is phasing out its use of private prisons. This is obviously very good news. It will most likely improve the material existence of real humans and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. But like that other liberal criminal justice panacea, ending the War on Drugs, it is barely even a first step towards ending mass incarceration.

The dirty truth is that ending mass incarceration means prosecuting fewer violent criminals and sentencing violent criminals to shorter sentences. That’s just math. If you support ending the War on Drugs and eliminating private prisons, but you’re still okay with locking up all violent offenders for decades (or life) in state-run facilities, then fair enough, but don’t say that you really want to end mass incarceration.

Academic note: I think the contours of this whole discussion reflect the power of what STS scholar Ruha Benjamin calls the “carceral imagination.” When we imagine criminal justice reform we imagine incarcerating only the right kinds of people or incarcerating them without the unique abuses of private prisons but we still have tremendous difficulty imagining wholesale alternatives to incarceration in the first place.


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