The Weekly Abolitionist: Starve the Prison State

The following article contains graphic description of a sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.

Occasionally I see a headline that makes me want to cheer. “Corporations Divest Nearly $60 Million From Private Prison Industry” was such a headline. As Katie Rose Quandt reported in Mother Jones:

Scopia Capital Management, DSM North America, and Amica Mutual Insurance pulled nearly $60 million in investments from CCA [Corrections Corporation of America] and GEO Group in the final quarter of 2013, marking full divestment for DSM and Amica and a 27 percent decrease in shares for Scopia. (Scopia has decreased its private prison stock by 59 percent since December 2012.) Their announcements mark the first round of success for civil rights nonprofit Color of Change, which has been pushing over 150 companies to divest from for-profit incarceration companies since last year. Color of Change is one of 16 organizations working towards these divestment goals as part of the National Prison Divestment Campaign.

This is a victory I’m delighted to see. Corporations like CCA and GEO Group are monstrous creatures of the state. Their profits come from taxpayer dollars, and their business is locking people in cages where they are abused and brutalized. Every dollar invested in a prison profiteering firm is a dollar invested in aggression, coercion, and destruction rather than production for individual desires and needs.

CCA and GEO Group have both been involved in many horrific instances of state criminality. CCA, for example, operates the Eloy Detention Center, an immigration detention center where migrants are held for deportation, often without charges or access to an attorney. Tanya Guzman Martinez, a transgender woman, was locked up with men in this facility. Guards and inmates alike repeatedly degraded her with misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic slurs. One guard told inmates that in exchange for “three soup packets” they could “have” Guzman-Martinez, essentially an offer of forced prostitution. And one guard and CCA employee, Justin Manford, masturbated into a cup, and forced Tanya Guzman-Martinez to drink semen from the cup.

GEO Group operated the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, a juvenile detention center where guards have raped, beaten, and pepper sprayed children and teens. Michael McIntosh Jr., one prisoner at the facility, “was beaten so badly…he sustained brain damage from which he’ll never recover.” GEO Group also operates the Northwest Detention Center, another due process deficient immigration detention center where migrants recently staged a hunger strike.

These corporations have an incentive to lobby politicians for ever more draconian criminal laws and immigration laws. They donate money to politicians, and until recently they wrote bills with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), all to gather more lucrative government contracts and fill their cages with more non-consenting residents. They are a concentrated and wealthy interest group, while the taxpayers they profit from are dispersed and their inmates are systematically disenfranchised. These perverse incentives create a continual demand for more prisoners. I have written previously about how the interests of prison employees create similar incentive problems for public prisons.

But many for-profit prisons have a vulnerability that public prisons lack. They trade stocks. This means that, while their profits directly come from taxpayers rather than consumers, many of their investors are companies that rely on consumers in a market. These companies can be pressured through boycotts to divest from prison profiteering firms. Consumers can give companies good reasons to drop prison stock, and move their money away from this institutionalized violence back towards the productive sector. That’s why the Prison Divestment Campaign can be effective at combating prison profiteers and balancing out some of the perverse incentives they help create.

The Prison Divestment Campaign can be thought of as a way to use our decisions in the marketplace to help starve the beast of the prison state. Taxes are taken from us by force to pay for this monstrous prison system. But while we have little choice in that, we can choose to boycott companies that invest in rapacious prison profiteers.

There are other ways to starve the prison state. A big one is building alternatives to the state’s monopoly on law. I call this entrepreneurial direct action. Many people consider the state’s monopoly on law and the reliance on criminal law and imprisonment as core parts of law are inevitable and necessary to protecting people from violence and plunder. But this ignores the historical record. In his book The Enterprise of Law, economist Bruce Benson documents the history of stateless systems of customary law, such as the lex mercatoria. A recent post at The Umlaut argues that Bitcoin’s cryptographic protocols can be used to build a new form of common law, a new stateless method of protecting people from theft and fraud. This kind of innovation could allow new law to developed consensually and voluntarily without the state, in a way that concretely meets people’s needs. This is the kind of innovation that a monopoly like the state has no incentive to produce.

People acting peacefully in the market have the potential to help starve the violent and abusive prison state that has claimed so many of our fellow human beings. Whether that means boycotting and pressuring companies that invest in prison profiteers or just building alternative legal systems outside the state, we should all take steps to move our resources away from institutionalized violence and towards peaceful, consensual forms of interaction.

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The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory