Is Prison Privatization a New Form of Economic Servitude? – Part II
I Was In Prison
Online Prison Ministry Newsletter
October 1, 2008
Dale S. Recinella, Catholic Lay Chaplain, Florida Death Row and Solitary Confinement
Susan M. Recinella, Clinical Psychologist for mentally ill adults, and Catholic Lay Minister to Families of the Executed

Is Prison Privatization a New Form of Economic Servitude? – Part II
By: Dale Recinella

We continue our discussion of the six pastoral letters on the criminal justice system issued by our Catholic Bishops in the South.

The second letter, Wardens from Wall Street: Prison Privatization, raises the delicate issue of mixing profit motives with the incarceration of American citizens.

In our last column we broached the connection between private prison profits and the incarceration of African-American citizens, a perspective brought into relief by comparison of historical data from the post-Civil War period to our current time. In his book, Private Prisons in America: A Critical Race Perspective, Dr. Michael Hallett, Chair and Professor of Criminal Justice and Director of the Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research at the University of North Florida, presents his findings.

As Catholics, we do not accept Dr. Hallett’s personal views on class conflict. After setting those aside, however, last month we focused upon Dr. Hallett’s historical data which tends to show that changes in laws during the post-Civil War period created an artificial “black crime problem.” Before emancipation, almost all prisoners in southern penitentiaries were white. After emancipation, almost all the prisoners were black. In the wake of this change, private profit from prisons rose to the fore through the Convict Lease System.

Dr. Hallett finds the parallels between that post-Civil War experience and the resurgence of private profit from prisons due to the new “black crime problem” precipitated by the 1980s “war on drugs” both stark and disturbing:

In both cases, the majority of crimes for which blacks were suddenly imprisoned in disproportionately high numbers were nonviolent petty crimes only recently made “serious” by changes in law.

He notes that prior to the 1980s, drug abuse was primarily dealt with as a public health issue: treatment and rehabilitation. With the advent of the 1980s’ drug war, however:

… punishment of impoverished black citizen’s drug use far outpaced that of whites. By the end of the 1990s, almost 1 of 3 (32.2 percent) African-American men in the age group 20-29 were either in prison, jail, probation or parole on any given day.

Prior installments of this column have dealt with the disparity in treatment of drug offenses involving cocaine (the more expensive white drug) and crack (the cheaper black drug). That disparity has a vital relationship to the explosion in the number of black men in the criminal justice system and the concurrent revitalization of prisons for profit. Dr. Hallett expounds on the connections:

By the late 1990s, when official unemployment rates were at all-time lows, incarceration rates for the same period were at record highs. Not coincidentally, both the highest concentrations of unemployment and incarceration for the period are found among urban African American men. …imprisonment had replaced welfare as one of society’s primary means for regulating the poor.

In short, the war on drugs and its local concentration on relatively low-level, nonviolent offenders artificially precipitated a massive increase in the number of black inmates. This created financial strains on state and local governments, setting the stage for imprisonment for profit.

According to the July 2007 report of The Sentencing Project, Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration by Race and Ethnicity, that trend continues unabated. African Americans constitute 900,000 of the total 2.2 million incarcerated in America. The incarceration rate for blacks, 2,290 per 100,000, is more than 5½ times higher than the rate of 412 per 100,000 for whites. The report identifies the same source of racial disparity as Dr. Hallett and makes the following statement its first recommendation:

Both federal and state policymakers should revisit the domestic drug control strategy, taking into account the wealth of empirical evidence demonstrating the efficacy of investing in prevention and treatment, rather than a law enforcement-centered approach.

As we will see in our final installment on this issue, Wall Street is betting that those policies will not be revisited. The smart money says that punishment will continue to trump treatment and rehabilitation. This raises tough questions under Catholic teaching on Social Justice.

First published: The Florida Catholic, October 12, 2007
© 2007 Dale S. Recinella & The Florida Catholic.
Used with permission. All rights reserved.
No further reproduction or republication without prior written permission.

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Dale S. Recinella, Catholic Lay Chaplain, Florida Death Row and Solitary Confinement
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Excellent book on the topic!,
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The Biblical Truth about America's Death Penalty is a must-read. It deals with Biblical standards of Capital Punishment and then compares them to the system used in America today. It is the best-researched, most faithful to scripture, and most evenhanded analysis I have ever read concerning the Death Penalty. Whatever your persuasion on the issue, this book will teach you a great deal. Recinella is a trained lawyer and committed Christian who now volunteers part-time on Florida's death row. He thus understands law, the Bible, and the system of execution in America. I challenge anyone who supports the Death Penalty to read this book.

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