Hollywood Caricatures

Hollywood films seem like the biggest advertisements for the United States of America. Action movies show muscled heroes saving cities like New York and Los Angeles from certain danger. Family dramas live in American suburbs, while romantic comedies maze through the downtown restaurants and bars. Westerns hearken back to frontier times and science fiction marvels at American space exploration.

In addition to the best aspects of Americana, films also showcase the worst prejudices within American society as explored in two documentaries: Reel Injun (2009) and Reel Bad Arabs (2006).

Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian explored the portrayal of Native Americans in film. Reel Injun is illustrated with excerpts from classic and contemporary portrayals of Native people in Hollywood movies and interviews with filmmakers, actors and film historians. Reel Injun explores many stereotypes about Natives in film, from the Noble savage to the Drunken Indian. It profiles such figures as Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian American who reinvented himself as a Native American on screen. The film also explores Hollywood’s practice of using Italian Americans and American Jews to portray Indians in the movies and reveals how some Native American actors made jokes in their native tongue on screen when the director thought they were simply speaking gibberish.

Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (which can be viewed online here) is an extension of the book of that name by Jack Shaheen which also analyzes how Hollywood corrupts or manipulates the image of Arabs. This documentary argues that the slander of Arabs in American filmmaking has existed since the early days of the silent cinema and is present in the biggest Hollywood blockbusters today. Jack Shaheen analyzes a long series of “demeaning” images of Arabs through his presentation of various scenes from different American movies which he has studied. He argues that this image is characterized by showing Arabs either as bandits or as a savage, nomadic race, or shows Arab women as shallow belly dancers serving evil, naïve, and greedy Arab sheiks. Most important is the image of the rifle in the hands of Arab “terrorists”. The film then attempt to explain the motivations behind these stereotypes about Arabs, and their development at key points in American history, as well as why it is so important today.

Demeaning Native American and Middle Eastern movie depictions follows from Hollywood’s racist imagery of African and Asian decedents. Any race except White Europeans.

j320-infographic-1ikhbg2-519x1024Racist film portrayals parallel American depictions within sport and other cultural areas, like Halloween costumes. They reinforce one another and desensitize people to racism.

Children receive this informal education early on. Disney has produced both Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas (1995), embodying the worst aspects discussed above. One features an Arab land filled with genies and flying carpets. The other features a Native American women in need of a conquering European man’s help. These “family friendly” and racist films continue to be made today.

It is important to reflect on this history as many Americans and Canadians will have limited to no interaction with the minority ethnic groups portrayed in film. This inability to experience counter-narratives leads many people to believe the reality depicted in film.

It leads to ongoing violence against both groups, who are seen as supporting characters without true person-hood. Stereotypes to laugh at and not treat as fully human.

Until we, as consumers and fans of film, realize our role in pushing such disgusting lies about peoples who have be mistreated by others for far too long, nothing will improve. We need to stop pretending that culturally inappropriate caricatures of people in film (and all media) are harmless or simply “good fun”.

Stereotypes have serious consequences for everyone.


Black Power and the Black Panthers

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Writing for Jacobin Magazine, Robert Greene II discusses the lasting relevance of the Black Panthers and their antiracist, anticapitalist vision:

The work of the Black Panthers remains important for several reasons. First, they remind us that the problem of police brutality has long been with us (Martin Luther King, Jr even mentioned it in his oft-cited, but often misinterpreted, “I Have A Dream” speech). Indeed, protests following the death of Denzil Dowell in North Richmond, a community near Oakland, in April 1967 played a major role in the growth of the BPP from a small cadre to a major political and social force.

Second, the BPP offers a good model of grassroots activism and ideology in practice. While the group was torn apart by conflicts between Newton and Cleaver by the 1970s, the Panthers continued to do important work on the ground in Oakland. Their “survival programs” appealed to African Americans living in poverty who were unable to depend on local government for any help. And crucially, they tied their free breakfast and education programs to a larger political project. An ingenious mix of the practical and the visionary, the BPP’s community work was the most revolutionary work they carried out.

The Black Panther Party also proved an important training ground for African-American women activists, such as Kathleen Cleaver and Elaine Brown. As with the Civil Rights Movement, women members did a great deal of the nuts-and-bolts work in the BPP.

Finally, the legacy of the Black Panther Party can be seen in the current Black Lives Matter movement. The Movement for Black Lives’ demands for economic justice, community power, and reparations recall the Black Panther Party’s ten-point platform. And, like the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, the Black Lives Matter movement has had to deal time and again with negative media coverage and a “go-slow” critique from many American liberals.

Today, fifty years after its founding, the Panthers should be remembered for more than their black berets and shotguns. Despite their flaws, they melded the immediate and the transformative into a potent political vision, advocating a multiracial alliance against racism, capitalism, and imperialism that delivered tangible gains to the most exploited. That vision is equally as stirring today.

Charles Bursey hands a plate of food to a child seated at a Free Breakfast Program.

Charles Bursey hands a plate of food to a child seated at a Free Breakfast Program. (source)

Like Greene’s article, the documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (click here to watch online) traces the roots of the Black Panther movement and the impact of its rise and fall on society.

The Black Panther Party put itself at the vanguard for social change. Their community social programs, including free breakfast for school kids and community health clinics, and acts of civil disobedience lead the FBI to call the movement “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” and start an extensive government program called COINTELPRO to surveil, infiltrate, perjure, harass, discredit, destabilise and disintegrate the movement. The U.S. government did everything it could to destroy this grassroots movement for racial advancement, including the assassination of its leaders.

Other movements can learn from the example of Black Panthers and their community-based action for social change. No matter what the powerful do to stop them, the people will continue to fight for what’s right.


All power to the people.

The Powerful Need to Invalidate Social Movements

tumblr_mu4239ywbb1r0cemdo1_500As a white man, I rank very high on the ladder of privilege. My skin color and my gender are just two aspects of my identity, which have been prioritized by Western society for centuries. I also benefit everyday from my sexual orientation (heterosexual), my nationality (Canadian), my level of education (two university degrees), my mother tongue (English), my lack of disability (whether physical or psychological) and my age (28). It took me some time to understand this but now I know that, in almost every aspect of my identity, I have immense privilege, which many do not. Unfortunately, many people don’t see it that way. Many people with a similar attributes to myself have not realized their privilege and fight against any evidence to that effect.

The two cases examined below show this backlash and are similar for a number of reasons. First, they are social movements fighting inequality in society – one on the basis of race, the other on gender. Second, they both utilize the Internet and social media as tools for communication and organizing, including Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook. Third, both have been met with criticism from privileged people outside their movements trying to invalidate their message. This point has far-reaching importance as invalidation by outsiders can be found across nearly all social movements and includes acts of denial, shame, ignorance and faux compassion. Fourth, they are largely centered in North America and Europe. Finally, each of the two cases below shows the difference in understanding between outsiders with a cursory understanding of the field they are questions and academics who rebut them.


“Because of the brutalizing and killing of black people at the hands of the police and the indifference of society in general and the criminal justice system in particular, it is important that we say that…”

Black Lives Matter.

This explanation of what is implied by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement comes from a law professor responding to complaint from a first-year student. The student (or possibly, students) had been so offended by the professor wearing a BLM shirt that they wrote a two-page complaint. The letter said wearing the shirt was “inappropriate” and “highly offensive.” Further, it said “we do not spend three years of our lives and tens of thousands of dollars to be subjected to indoctrination or personal opinions of our professors,” and urged the professor to avoid “mindless actions” that might distract students at a law school where not everyone is passing the bar.

The professor, Patricia Leary of Whittier Law School, responded. She wrote an impassioned and thoughtful response. (The full exchange can be found here.) Professor Leary unpacks many of the student’s premises, such as whether tuition allows students to make demands on their education and institution, in her six-page response. The ones I found helpful specifically addressed the student’s claims that the BLM statement “is racist and anti-law enforcement”. These thoughts, held by many Americans, have resulted in counter movements, the so-called “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” slogans.


Following BLM, whites and pro-police groups came out with their own thoughts on which “Lives Matter”.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) originated in 2013 as a hashtag on social media, campaigning against violence and systemic racism toward black people. It has now grown into a global movement. The BLM movement is addressing the long history of police violence against African Americans and raising consciousness through protests. Law enforcement in the United States has a racial bias, as evidenced by the Guardian’s database on police killings and stories in their series The Counted. Blacks are killed more often than whites. Other minority groups, Native Americans and Latinos, also face higher rates of police violence than whites.


Americans killed by police in 2015.


Americans killed by police in 2016, as of October.

These statistics hide the stories of men and women shot by police and often killed. Stories like the shooting of unarmed people, like Charles Kinsey, who had his hands up and said he was unarmed when Miami police marksmen opened fire this year, or Oscar Grant, who was killed on New Year’s Day 2009 after being shot in the back while lying on the ground face down and handcuffed. These incidents were filmed, preventing the police from disputing the facts. In other cases of death by shooting, like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the police officers who acted were found to have previous incidents of excessive force. Often these police receive little to no punishment, which sparks anger within the American American community.

These recent cases, following the history of slavery and racial segregation, are what many white people, including the anonymous student, are trying to invalidate. As Leary explains,

“Black Lives Matter is about focus, not exclusion.”

This is the core misunderstanding of people, like the anonymous student, who attack social movements. BLM is focusing on a problem. It doesn’t exclude anyone from debating the issue. It is not only Black Lives Matter, but, rather, Black Lives Matter too.

A focus on racial profiling and racial inequality in the United States criminal justice system (which I’ve previously written about), in addition to police brutality, are important human rights problems in the U.S. Discussions on police violence often intersect with disability and poverty, which also go ignored by many.

not-in-serviceSaying “Blue Lives Matter” does nothing to address police brutality. It is an attempt to deny the claims of the BLM and replace them with equal footing for police officers. In the cases noted above, where they were unarmed, victims were shot regardless of the threat they posed to police officers. This is a serious problem, found across the U.S. and needs to be addressed, not ignored.

Similarly, saying “All Lives Matter” is a denial of the history of racial inequality and its results. Rather than listening to victims and researching their claims, many white people will go on the defensive saying things like “You’re not the only ones.” Yes, white people are killed by police, although at a much lower proportion than minority groups. Rather than addressing this problem, which affects everyone, people who shout “All Lives Matter” are attacking the one actually doing something about it, namely the BLM movement.

Who Needs Feminism?

While studying in the UK last year, I heard about a conference on the issue’s affecting women. As someone new to the area and hoping to help create change, I was hoping to attend. Unfortunately, they were excluding men from applying.

At first, I took offense. Shouldn’t I be able to attend? Don’t my opinions and voice matter? I was wrong on both counts. Men should never dictate what women can discuss, or who can attend such discussions.

Like the case of Professor Leary and the anonymous student above, many men (and women too) will think their voices are being discriminated against in situations where women discuss issues that affect them. This is epitomized by the Men’s Rights Movement (MRM) and online debates.

On social media, people have expressed their solidarity with women’s rights and issues with hashtags like #YesAllWomen and #HeForShe. They also posted photos of themselves with statements starting with “I need feminism because …”.

This was countered by people on social media, like Facebook group Women Against Feminism, who wanted to show why they “don’t need feminism”.

Rather than seeing the first group’s grievances and saying, “Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it, we must do better”, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggests, the second group denies their claims and feels feminism is the problem. Many of the anti-feminists claims do not match what is found in reasearch, as Lisa Cumming points out. Men and women don’t have the same rights and opportunities. The suffragette movement, which was the first wave of feminism and led to women’s right to vote, is just one example of this inequality and why feminism matters.

In a large number of cases, these posts attack feminist’s character rather than the issues. When they do discuss issues, the anti-feminists question why men aren’t talked about more by feminists, since they’re 50 percent of the population.

This is exactly what happened when Lauren Southern, an online commentator for The Rebel, a Canadian media platform, posted a “I Don’t Need Feminism” video on YouTube. Lauren argues points familiar to the MRM, including male suicide, sexual assault against men and custody of children. In fact, these are the three issues that are repeated ad infinitum by MRM proponents. These three concerns are, unsurprisingly, discussed by feminist writers as well.


In a reply to Lauren’s video, Jenna Christian addresses each claim in detail. Jenna notes that “feminism helps us understand and confront not only the violences and inequalities facing women, but also the problems facing men.” On whether feminism is sexist, Jenna responds that “there are real and serious inequalities that continue to face women, and it is not unreasonable or sexist for a movement for gender equality to focus primarily on those problems” (emphasis added). This is very much in line with the idea of exclusion that I’ve been talking about and how many outsiders may feel.

On male suicide, male workplace deaths, male combat deaths, and male homicide deaths: “feminists demonstrate how norms of femininity and masculinity entrench ideas about appropriate male and appropriate female behavior, which deeply shape the conditions of these male deaths.” Through many examples and references, Jenna goes on to explain how feminist theories help to explain domestic violence against men, men raped in prison, male privilege, child custody following divorce, and the other critiques by Lauren. In all, it provides a successful rebuttal.

Jenna and Lauren decided to continue their online discussion. Jenna provided a prompt looking at the devaluation of femininity. Lauren provided a second video, adding points on income inequality, which Jenna addressed. The conversation didn’t move any further.

One point which is very telling is that Lauren, in her second video, states that Jenna provided “no proof that feminists speak for men’s issues”. This is strange since Jenna has two posts before filled with citations of feminists speaking on men’s issues. It’s unclear if Lauren even read the critiques of her video. (It’s also important to note that the media platform that Lauren works for and that hosted her video is staunchly anti-feminist. Rebel Media, among other views against basic human rights, denies all claims made by the trans* community and denies that there is anything apart from a men/women binary.)

I find this exchange between Jenna and Lauren interesting for two main reasons. It’s interesting that two women are discussing issues related to men. It’s interesting not because they can’t discuss men’s issues. It’s actually the opposite. Women can research the problems of men. And men can research the problems women. Or more simply, everyone can research gender.

The cognitive dissonance within the MRM and anti-feminist media is important to note. On the one hand, MRM proponents will deride anyone who undertakes gender studies, saying that they really should have studied in the heavily male-dominated fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) so they can get a job. Then, on the other hand, those same people will criticise gender studies for a (perceived) lack of inclusion of the issues that affect males but not encouraging men to switch from STEM to gender studies to research said issues. It’s as though they want the gears of industry to keep on turning while never questioning the struggles of the people who turn those gears every single day. It’s really hypocritical.

x_lon_polandabortion_161003-nbcnews-ux-1080-600The other reason I find it interesting is that anti-feminists seem to have a small worldview and a short memory. It wasn’t long ago when women, in North America and Europe, couldn’t vote, hold public office, attend university or own land. These victories were just some of the advancements in the process for equality. A process that continues today.

People opposed to feminism and women’s liberation also seem to ignore the news, because there are plenty of countries where it’s needed. Recently, the people of Poland have protested in the streets against the government’s planned reproductive rights laws that would limit abortion. Poland already has extreme laws that force many women to undergo illegal abortions that risk their lives. The protests worked, forcing the government to back down.

Following the release of a damning Human Rights Watch report in July, the hashtag #IAmMyOwnGuardian went viral in Saudi Arabia, with women of all ages tweeting for a change to the system. An unprecedented petition calling for an end to the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia has been put before the kingdom’s government after gaining over 14,000 signatures.

Who needs feminism?


Further Implications

When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

Instances of people rallying against BLM or feminism are useful in understanding privilege in society. To understand white privilege, it’s important for whites to unpack their invisible knapsack and understand the historical context of racial inequality. Women and men opposed to feminism should look at what feminists actually say. They might be surprised by what they find (and how much of it agrees with what they are concerned about). These two cases are useful in addressing other social movements and the invalidation that outsiders thrust upon them.

In the fight for marriage equality and adoption for same-sex couples, campaigners have been countered by religious conservatives, who play the victim and say homosexual marriage is an affront to ‘traditional’ marriage. Marriage is a social construct that has changed over time and excluding same-sex couples is hurtful. Religious groups also say that “kids do best with a mom and a dad” while ignoring the plight of orphans or abused children within heterosexual couples. Opponents do not see homosexuals as their equals and seek to punish them for this belief.

Both of these issues for same-sex couples played out in Mexico last month. Thousands of people in Mexico City have protested against a government proposal to legalise same-sex marriage, which they say would undermine traditional families. Opponents to the change in constitution also believe that reforms will make room for same-sex adoption (currently illegal in Mexico). A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico City has said that President Peña Nieto’s proposals felt like a “terrible stab in the back” to the Catholic hierarchy with whom he had previously had a good relationship.

A similar backlash occurred in the U.S. before the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, where evangelicals needed to hear some hard truths: “No one is going to make you be gay. Preachers will not be forced to marry gay people. It will not become illegal to be a Christian. God isn’t going to destroy America.” I’m sure the same will hold true for Mexico and the rest of the world.

The notion of invalidation can apply to international issues as well. When in comes to global poverty and the obligation of wealthier nations to provide foreign aid, many people will say that politicians should “helping those here” first. Following flooding in the United Kingdom, politicians and the press used the opportunity to attack foreign aid. Similarly, opponents of foreign aid also oppose providing sanctuary for refugees and victims of war on similar grounds. It’s difficult to see why no one has responded by asking: “Why not do both?”

In these cases – All Lives Matter, Men’s Rights, traditional marriage, etc. – there is a trend in defending the status quo. The powerful sections of society – commonly, rich white men – attack anyone who questions their power, rather than addressing the inequality that results from their ingrained privilege. They use conservative elements of media, government, business and religion to help fight their cause. As shown above, people in the public also help fight against their own causes. They push back against racial, gender and sexual equity. They also push back against notions of compassion for the impoverished and victims of war.

Racial justice movements, like BLM, question the police and criminal justice system that has evolved from slavery and racial segregation. Feminists have also campaigned against the violence of police and the military, as well as economic inequality, political representation and reproductive rights. Same-sex marriage is opposed by orthodox religion and also acts to question its moral supremacy. Intersectionality brings these discussions of race, gender and sexuality together, along with age, disability, colonialism, language and more.

Let’s hope that everyone can join together to fight for social justice and equity.

Finally, “All Houses Matter”:


The American Injustice System: Slave Labour and Prison Profits

As Huey Freeman quipped, “the prison-industrial complex is a system situated at the intersection of government and private interest. It uses prison as a solution to social, political and economic problems. It includes human rights violations, the death penalty, slave labour, policing, the courts, the media, political prisoners and the elimination of dissent.”

I want to explore two major economic elements within the U.S. prison system below. Firstly, slave labour within prisons and the connection to corporations, whose products are used by most Americans. Secondly, the privatization of prisons, detention centers and other services, which used to be managed by more accountable bodies. Both of these elements are closely tied to American treatment of minority groups, especially African Americans, and people in economic poverty. Both of these elements have also seen recent social action, by the government and the prisoners themselves.

Slave Labour in American Prisons

The American Civil War waged for four years before being won by the northern states. Largely fought over the issue of slavery, the end of the war resulted in the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution. Passed and ratified by Congress in 1865, it provides that:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The most revealing part of this proclamation is the exemption of slavery as a punishment for crime. This has meant that slavery has continued in the U.S. for 150 years! In the years after slavery, a formal prison system formed in the South. Some plantations were bought by the state and turned into prisons. In the short illustrated video below, the Equal Justice Initiative narrates the details around the fact that mass incarceration is a direct descendant from slavery.

As researcher Kevin Bales explains, slavery is composed of three factors:

  1. one person completely controlling another;
  2. violence being used to maintain that control; and
  3. that control being used to exploit people economically.

By their very nature, prisons control people. They control every aspect of prison life including where and when prisoners can move. They control access to basic services like health care and educational materials. They control what food prisoners receive. As these parts are given, they can also be taken away – a form of psychological control.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has reported on staff brutality and degrading treatment of inmates the occurs across the country’s prisons. U.S. prison inmates have been beaten with fists and batons, stomped on, kicked, shot, stunned with electronic devices, doused with chemical sprays, choked, and slammed face first onto concrete floors by the officers whose job it is to guard them. Jail and prison staff throughout the United States have used unnecessary, excessive, and even malicious force against prisoners with mental disabilities, “even when, because of their illness, they cannot understand or comply with staff orders.” Inmates have ended up with broken jaws, smashed ribs, perforated eardrums, missing teeth, burn scars—not to mention psychological scars and emotional pain. Some have died. In many states, death penalties continue the history of race-based lynching.

Once violent control is established, slavery occurs through economic exploitation. This exploitation is accompanied by paying the individual nothing, or close enough to that. This is exactly what the 13th amendment has allowed the U.S. to do to prisoners for the past century and a half.

According to Alternet, prior to the 1970s, private corporations were prohibited from using prison labor as a result of the chain gang and convict leasing scandals. But in 1979, the US Department of Justice admits that congress began a process of deregulation to “restore private sector involvement in prison industries to its former status, provided certain conditions of the labor market were met.” Over the last 30 years, at least 37 states have enacted laws permitting the use of convict labor by private enterprise, with an average pay of $0.93 to $4.73 per day.


Whole Foods has sold goods such as fish and cheese produced by Colorado prisoners. McDonald’s has purchased uniforms and plastic utensils made by Oregon inmates. Female inmates in South Carolina sew undergarments and casual-wear for Victoria’s Secret, while AT&T has consistently used inmates to work in their call centers since 1993. From agriculture to technology, the list of businesses – Wal-Mart, BP, Aramark included – that use prison labour in their pursuit of profit is lengthy. American capitalism is inextricably tied to American prison labour. This is, simply, corporate slavery.

The United States government also benefits from the cheap cost of forced prison labour. On average, federal prisoners work 8 hours a day, but they have no union representation and make between $0.23 and $1.15 per hour, over 6 times less than federal minimum wage. Federal prisoners are employed by Unicor, a wholly owned government corporation established by Congress in 1934. Its principal customer is the Department of Defense.

According to the Left Business Observer, “the federal prison industry produces 100 percent of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98 percent of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93 percent of paints and paintbrushes; 92 percent of stove assembly; 46 percent of body armor; 36 percent of home appliances; 30 percent of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21 percent of office furniture. Airplane parts, medical supplies, and much more: prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for blind people.”


Two weeks ago, on the 45th anniversary of the Attica Rebellion, prisoners across the United States decided to do something about this unjust system of slave labour. Just as others have done in the past to gain greater control of their own labour, prisoners protested and stopped all work on September 9th.

This day of action was organised by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), the prison-organizing group of the Industrial Workers of the World labor union, which has been using work stoppages as a means to attack the economic incentive of prisons. On September 9th, more than 24,000 prisoners missed work, which affected at least 29 prisons. This was the largest prisoner protest in U.S. history. Solidarity protests in cities across America also occurred following this day of action.


I’m hopeful that these types of protests will bring greater awareness to the issue of slave labour within the American prison system and the corporations who profit from this involuntary labour. In the meantime, citizens and consumers also have the power to act by supporting prison reform as well as boycotting products made from prison labour.

While prison labour for rehabilitation may be beneficial for re-entry to society if a decent wage was paid, some prisons exist to lock up people  for as long as possible and solely for profit. I’m speaking about private, for-profit prisons.

Prison Profits

The U.S. locks up more people than any other country on Earth. The country has about 5 percent of the world’s population but more than 20 percent of it’s prison population. To deal with that overcrowding, the US turned to private prisons. Those private companies make big money. Private companies make millions through the construction of new prisons, government contracts for prison management, and providing transportation and probation services to correctional departments. These components of the for-profit American criminal justice system are discussed below.

The two largest for profit prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and Geo Group, played significant roles in crafting criminal justice legislation in the United States, leading to increased mandatory minimums and incarceration rates. Indeed, stipulations are often written into the contracts of prison management companies to require 90 percent occupancy of the facilities. Concurrently, companies cut costs by reducing quality of life and basic care for inmates, leading to overcrowding and inhumane conditions.

This sector of the economy is difficult to investigate. However, in a special investigation of the private prison industry, Shane Bauer, a reporter for Mother Jones, spent four months working as a prison guard at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana, one of the nation’s oldest private prisons. CCA, the company that runs this prison, takes in $1.9 billion a year and its stock is traded on Wall Street.

One way private prisons can make large profits is through low-wage staffing. At state run prisons, guards were making $12.50 an hour. At private prison, they were making $9 an hour. For this wage, guards like Shane witness stabbings, beatings and prisoners threatening to riot inside the prison on lockdown.

At his morning meetings, Shane recalls that “sometimes there would be 24 guards there for 1500 inmates. There often were not enough staff to keep the prison running the way it was supposed to.” This despite the company’s contract with Louisiana which states that they’re supposed to have 36 guards show up for work at 6:00 AM every day. While Winn is deficient in manpower, CCA’s CEO is making $3.4 million a year, nearly 19 times what the head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons makes. This is the corporatization, the “Wal-Martification”, of the U.S. prison system. In fact, CCA competes with Wal-Mart for employees in the area. Since almost everything that happens at the prison requires guards, fewer guards means fewer programs for prisoners.

To further maximize profits, services at privately-run prisons are kept to a minimum. The physical conditions are barely tolerable. Medical and mental health care are inadequate. Shane met a prisoner who contracted gangrene at Winn and lost his legs and fingers as a result. Shane also found that prisoners were getting an insufficient amount of calories in their meals. Rehabilitation courses, like welding classes, and recreation are absent. Instead, most inmates sit in the dorm all day long. Getting bored, frustrated, and angry.

Prisoners and guards both reported to Shane that Winn was more violent than other prisons they’d been to. For one inmate, “forced fighting and stabbings, it doesn’t surprise me no more, after you’ve seen it so long.” In the first 4 months of 2015, CCA reported 200 weapons found at Winn. That’s 23 times more than were found at Angola, which is a maximum security prison. In his first two months, Shane heard about 12 stabbing that had occurred. However, when he looked at data from the Department of Corrections, it showed that CCA had only reported 5 stabbings in a 10 month period. They weren’t reporting all the stabbings. Little was being done to prevent violence inside the prison.

These conditions are not isolated to Louisiana, either. The documentary Prisons for Profit, made by ACLU Ohio, examines the condition of the Lake Erie Correctional Institute, operated by CCA, in Ohio. In this “institute” violence increases, especially as CCA takes a “no touch” approach, whereby guards are not allowed to intervene when fighting breaks out. Shane was instructed that the protocol in Winn is to verbally tell them to stop and that’s it. Back out, lock the room, and as he told, “Let them cut each other up.” If fighting intensifies to a certain level, chemical weapons are released to maintain order: pepper spray for fighting or stabbings; tear gas if a riot breaks out. One of the classic means for preventing violence is to occupy prisoners time with rehabilitation services, such as schooling. Unfortunately, private prisons cut these programs from their budgets to ensure profits are maintained.

Following the release of Bauer’s expose, a number of changes have occurred related to the private prison industry. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on 13 August that they have decided to stop contracting with private prisons. This is a sign of progress, however, as the Washington Post notes, “The vast majority of the incarcerated in America are housed in state prisons — rather than federal ones — and Yates’ memo does not apply to any of those, even the ones that are privately run.”

On the same day as the DOJ announcement, CCA and GEO Group, the two largest private prison companies in the country, lost almost half of their share value, equivalent to $2.2 billion. Shareholders and former inmates are filing lawsuits against CCA and GEO Group. The prison Bauer worked at, Winn Correctional Center, is no longer run by CCA; unfortunately, the new company is facing budget cuts, which means fewer medical and rehabilitative programs will be offered.

Another area the DOJ directive leaves out is the detention of immigrants, detained by the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Marshals Service detainees, who are technically in the federal system but not under the purview of the federal Bureau of Prisons. The share of beds in privately operated ICE facilities has risen in recent years, jumping from 49 percent in 2009 to 62 percent in 2015. Mega-corporations like CCA and Geo Group found another area of the American prison system to profit from. In August 2016, CCA was awarded a four-year, $1 billion contract “to build a massive detention facility for [Central American] women and children seeking asylum.” In what the Washington Post described as “an unusual agreement,” CCA will receive “the money regardless of how many people are detained at the facility.”

The Department of Homeland Security said it would reevaluate its use of private prisons. A DHS council will consider whether federal immigration detention facilities should follow the Justice Department’s lead and phase out privatized operations.

The corrections system in the US has also subcontracted services to companies that would normally fall under the scope of local police and sheriffs. The Marshall Project has investigated the case of private prison extradition industry in many states. Each year, tens of thousands of fugitives and suspects – many who have never been convicted of a crime – are entrusted to a handful of small private companies that specialize in transferring the men and women across the country. The Marshall Project uncovered cases of two prisoners dying of perforated ulcers, another woman who was sexually assaulted and a third who had to have both legs amputated from complications of untreated diabetes.

After complaining for more than a week of severe stomach pain and vomiting, William Weintraub was found dead in the back of a private prisoner transport van in Georgia. (GEORGIA BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION)

After complaining for more than a week of severe stomach pain and vomiting, William Weintraub was found dead in the back of a private prisoner transport van in Georgia. (GEORGIA BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION)

These types of services are bad for everyone involved. Prisoners face abuse and mistreatment. At least 14 women have alleged in criminal or civil court since 2000 that they were sexually assaulted by guards while being transported by these companies.

The workers are made to work long hours, to drive unsafe, as companies try to minimize wages paid. The companies are usually paid per prisoner per mile, giving them incentive to pack the vans and take as few breaks as possible. Crashes have killed a dozen prisoners and guards.

The public is at risk of both of these factors. At least 60 prisoners have escaped from private extradition vehicles since 2000, including one who later stabbed a police officer and another who was accused of sexual assault on a minor and is still missing. Prisoner escapes are difficult to investigate as vans constantly cross jurisdiction borders.

It’s difficult to reason that this system is benefiting anyone other that the companies who are profiting and largely unaccountable.

In certain states, private probation companies perform all of the work of an exhausted legal system – from levying fines to collecting payments for misdemeanors – without any need for a judicial authority. This has created modern-day “debtor prisons”. Laws are written that almost exclusively affect people living in poverty. In one extreme example, a woman in Arkansas wrote a check for $1.07 for a loaf of bread. The check bounced and her debt ballooned after fees and fines to nearly $400.

Every year, US courts sentence several hundred thousand people to probation and place them under the supervision of for-profit companies for months or years at a time. In their report, “Profiting from Probation: America’s ‘Offender-Funded’ Probation Industry”Human Rights Watch reports how minor traffic violations, like speeding, or misdemeanor crimes, like public drunkenness, put people in jail if they fail to make adequate payments towards fines and probation company fees.

The business of many private probation companies, such as Sentinel Offender Services, is built largely on the willingness of courts to discriminate against poor offenders who can only afford to pay their fines in installments over time. Thomas Barrett is one such example of this discrimination of the poor:

In Georgia, Thomas Barrett pled guilty to stealing a can of beer from a convenience store and was fined $200. He was ultimately jailed for failing to pay over a thousand dollars in fees to his probation company, even though his entire income—money he earned by selling his own blood plasma—was less than what he was being charged in monthly probation fees.

These examples of privatized criminal (in)justice in the U.S. – prisons, immigration detention, prisoner transport and probation – are just the tip of the iceberg of the current problems that exist within the prison-industrial complex. Until prisoners are treated with respect and given the most basic of human rights, the American justice system will never become just and will never solve the problems of crime that exist in and outside of prison wall.

Here’s hoping for change.