Donald Trump’s recent moves on criminalization, like his immigration orders, are designed to oppress communities of color by encouraging excessive law enforcement and enticing corporate profiteers who seek to fill beds and cells.
Trump intends to not just expand mass incarceration but to further privatize it. These plans have the potential to be his most devastating actions yet against communities of color.
As racial justice advocates and former public defenders, we know all too well the human cost of inaction in the face of such threats. We must sound the alarm on Trump’s true intentions for Black and Brown communities by explicitly confronting the intersectional relationship between racial oppression and economic exploitation.
The profit-making model of incarceration only works if government guarantees the private companies running these prisons a steady stream of inmates. Enter Trump and the Jeff Sessions-led Department of Justice, whose use of false narratives to scare White Americans will result in a costly and racialized expansion of criminalization and incarceration.
Given mass incarceration is fueled predominantly at the state level, the Trump regime has already sought to shape local law enforcement by emboldening police unions and encouraging racially biased criminal justice policies.
Among the plans: scaling back federal oversight of local police departments engaged in civil rights violations; efforts to revert back to aggressively cracking down on marijuana use and sale; to criminalize speech through laws that codify merely yelling at a police officer as a hate crime; and to increase jailing for street encounters with police officers by elevating the common resisting arrest charge from a misdemeanor to a felony.
The impact on communities of color broadly, as well as protesters and activists, could be swift and catastrophic – particularly in locales already subject to overpolicing, stop-and-frisk policies, and unfunded indigent defense systems.
The Trump administration’s focus on expanding criminalization for minor offenses and doubling-down on the drug war is at least in part aimed at filling corporate-run prisons with Black bodies.
The Department of Justice’s announcement that it would reinstate federal use of private prisons is therefore no coincidence. This move makes abundantly clear that corporations and their Wall Street backers are a primary beneficiary of Trump’s criminalization and incarceration agenda.
Trump’s commitment to advancing incarceration through privatization is consistent with the same strain of exploitation that underpins the country’s darkest institutions, beginning with the slave trade. Indeed, the sinister nature of commercializing the justice system is not limited to building private prisons; large multinational companies have long exploited their unfettered access to the labor and skills of incarcerated people – without any requirement or expectation of providing remotely fair compensation.
Private prison contractors, particularly, play a key role in fueling criminalization and the carceral state. They have a broad reach, operating at the federal and state level and often functioning as immigration detention providers. Increasingly, as some states work to reduce prison populations, these prison contractors are entering the probation monitoring and reentry industry.
Their financial dealings are also sophisticated and lucrative: publicly traded on stock exchanges, millions spent lobbying politicians, including Trump, while benefiting from massive tax giveaways and revolving credit schemes from big banks on Wall Street. According to a recent report, six major consumer banks help these two private prison groups finance their debts: Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, BNP Paribas, SunTrust, and U.S. Bancorp.
Although Attorney General Jeff Sessions only officially issued the memo on private prisons a few weeks ago, stocks of the two largest private prison corporations, CoreCivic (formerly known as Correction Corps of America) and Geo Group, began soaring the day after Trump’s election victory and have doubled from where they stood on Election Day.
Perhaps most disturbing is how private prisons exacerbate already troubling racial disparities within the criminal legal system. These prisons are more likely to incarcerate people of color than whites, are shielded from certain civil rights laws, and have perverse incentives that lead to despicable conditions and worse outcomes for individuals and the state as a whole.
Senators Cory Booker and Chris Van Hollen recently sent a letter to Sessions demanding answers as to why the DOJ is again contracting with private prisons, suggesting that the financial ties between Trump and the private prison industry is the reason. The letter raises important questions.
But as advocates, we must fight back against corporate profiteering off of incarceration by also providing an alternative to Trump’s hateful and exploitative national agenda. We can resist locally, build power in communities of color, and advance bold visions of reparative and restorative justice.
If we fail to build a movement inclusive of these goals, our communities face a predictable result: the continued extraction and theft of Black lives and wealth, and the transfer of their human, political, and economic capital from communities to corporate financial institutions.
The impact of expanding criminalization, particularly the privatized variety, on our country will be significant, and ugly – harming our families for generations to come. Morally and economically, we cannot afford to sit idly by while Trump and his corporate enablers scheme to round up and lock away tens of thousands more in our neighborhoods.
Jennifer Epps-Addison is Network President and Co-Executive Director at the Center for Popular Democracy. Kumar Rao is Senior Staff Attorney for Racial Justice at the Center for Popular Democracy.