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Q&A: Former NAACP head calls for-profit prisons 'morally corrupt'

Civil rights leader Benjamin Jealous slated as keynote speaker at ASU Law conference 'The Corporatization of Criminal Justice'

Handcuffs and money

April 12, 2017

Human rights advocates and other critics of the private prison industry say profit-driven corporations have influenced the length and severity of sentences, disproportionately harming communities of color and contributing to social inequality and oppression.

Under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department announced plans to end relationships with private prisons. But under the Trump administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed the policy, which the president campaigned on, saying private prisons work better than federally run detention centers.

The reversal angered the activist community and put the issue back in the spotlight. To that end, a national conference, “The Corporatization of Criminal Justice,” is being hosted Friday at the Beus Center for Law and Society on Arizona State University's Downtown Phoenix campus, featuring panel presentations, national figures, scholars, attorneys and advocates discussing the role of private prisons in mass incarceration and detention. 

Former head of the NAACP Benjamin Jealous has been slated as the keynote speaker.

Jealous, who now helps steer minorities into tech jobs, spoke to ASU Now, saying the for-profit prison system is “morally corrupt” and needs to be reformed.  

Question: I tried locating a scholar or panel member in support of the privatization of mass incarceration but couldn’t find any takers. Why do you think that is?

Answer: There’s a deep strain of skepticism that runs through American people on this issue. Generally speaking, people who have freedom tend to be leery about others profiting off of taking that freedom away from their neighbors. That skepticism has been affirmed again and again.

The most glaring example are the two judgesJealous is referring to the 2008 “kids for cash” scandal where Pennsylvania judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan were convicted of accepting kickbacks from a builder of two private, for-profit youth centers for the detention of juveniles in return for harsher sentences and increasing the number of residents there. in Pennsylvania who took bribes to send juveniles, who ordinarily would have not been incarcerated, to private juvenile prisons in order to help the company keep their bed count up. So there’s the potential for that type of corruption that makes most Americans leery under this system — profit-making for incarceration.

Q: When did the idea of for-profit prisons start, and how did it gain traction?

A: It became very popular in the last 20 years as a way to address overcrowding of prisons. This issue became urgent for me when I was president of the NAACP, and we were fighting to shrink prison systems across the South.

On the one hand, we enjoyed great bipartisan support, and on the other hand, one of our biggest obstacles was not the prison guards’ union, but actually private prison companies.

These companies have the audacity to do what no other business had ever done — they had actually required the state to guarantee them a 90 percent-plus bed count for 20 years or more. An issue like that may not be legally corrupt, but it’s certainly morally corrupt, and it contributes to the bankruptcy of our state.

Headshot of

Benjamin Jealous

Q: States wanted to get out of the prison business because it was costly, but it sounds like the for-profit system is costly, too?

A: Private prisons initially presented themselves as a financial solution as mass incarceration rates were going up. Now that states are focused on reducing incarceration, they not only have become a political obstacle but a financial one, as well. The sad irony is that their staffs tend to be less well-paid, less well-trained, and therefore more likely to commit abuse. You end up with a very powerful lobby protecting an inferior corner of the industry.

Q: Critics of the private prison system also claim it unfairly impacts people of color and creates social inequities and oppression.

A: If you talk to lawyers, they will focus on disproportionality, which is a real problem. If you look at this problem domestically, black and brown people are much more likely to be incarcerated than their white neighbors. However, it’s equally important to look at this internationally — we do not just have the most incarcerated black and brown people on the planet, but we also have the most incarcerated white people on the planet. Both populations are massively overrepresented.

We have 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated in our prisons, and a white male in America is just as likely to be incarcerated as a black male. The pain and the devastation is significant across racial groups when it comes to mass incarceration.

The reality is that there are perverse incentives for private prisons to underserve inmates, and that’s a major problem.

Q: The undercurrent seems to be that everybody is calling for reform, but no one’s actually doing anything about it because it’s a massive challenge that will take decades to sort out.

A: The good news is that we’ve been successful in creative bipartisan consensus on reform in a wide range of states. We’ve done it at the ballot box in California, and we’ve done it with legislators in Georgia, Texas, South Carolina and New York, for example. There’s a lot to be optimistic when handling mass incarceration. President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are not just out of step with the American people, they’re out of step with their own people.

Q: What do you hope this conference can achieve given that everybody will have the same point of view and essentially you’ll be “preaching to the choir”?

A: With David and Goliath, all David had to do was survive. The purpose of this conference is to inspire a wide range of activists and lawyers to keep on playing the role of David in this struggle.

The public is welcome to attend the conference. For information on registering, visit

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