Over the past couple of decades, the private prison industry has continued to grow in the United States and around the world. Despite facing intense criticism from activists, scholars, and media sources, corporations such as CoreCivic, the GEO Group, and Management and Training Corporation have expanded their networks and are currently operating hundreds of private detention facilities nationwide. This increased demand for privatized detention has arisen from the growing number of people who are funneled into the criminal legal system through policies of mass incarceration that disproportionately target Black and brown people. Indeed, incarceration has become an instrument of racial oppression and the default method of dealing with entrenched social issues such as unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, homelessness, prostitution, and illiteracy. However, “prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings. And the practice of disappearing vast numbers of people from poor, immigrant, and racially marginalized communities has literally become big business.”
The systematic incarceration of marginalized groups has become a lucrative industry, with corporations profiting from detention and therefore having a financial incentive to increase the number of detainees and the length of their detention. However, private prison corporations are strategic about framing their mission in apathetic and colorblind terms–as one of social service, real-estate management, and population control–without mentioning the fact that their ‘products’ are the people incarcerated in their facilities. By employing this kind of “apathy strategy,” corporations actively avoid discussing structures of inequality, let alone their role in the production of inequality. Instead, private prison companies portray themselves as providing a public service that is essential to the US economy, and media coverage often falls into this same pattern of describing the detention process as “business as usual,” as if incarceration was merely an economic endeavor– and as if the people warehoused inside the prison facilities did not even exist. The normalization of privatized incarceration means that oftentimes, corporations do not even need to provide a justification for what they’re doing, and they can quietly expand their industry with the help of the government and private investments. Even when they do face criticism, private prison management is able to deflect the blame from the structural factors of racism and inequality to individualized instances of wrongdoing (or “bad apples”). Likewise, media coverage on the horrific conditions or abuse within facilities tends to focus only on a specific case and create a narrative of individual fault without accounting for the systemic injustice inherent in privatized incarceration.
Furthermore, other businesses and institutions that hold investments in the private prison industry also engage in this process of deflecting blame from themselves while reaping the financial benefits of structural incarceration. As one entrepreneur described, private prison companies are “the only real estate investment where you’ve guaranteed 100 percent occupancy, at least.” It is through this rhetorical framework that private prison corporations have continued to grow, despite directly upholding structural injustice and violence. Universities are directly connected to the private prison industries through the flow of money from their endowments. Therefore, all institutions of higher education inherently benefit from racist and capitalistic systems that create and maintain systemic inequality. In many ways, universities are corporations, and they generate revenue and grow their endowments through the large amounts of money they have invested in many different areas. They are able to obtain and hold investments in private prisons precisely because of the coded language and veiled context that frames incarceration as just “business as usual.” University endowments are huge, with the largest being that of Harvard University at 41.9 billion dollars. As of 2019, Tufts University endowment stood at around 1.87 billion dollars. Although Tufts has a relatively small percentage of its endowment funds invested in private prison corporations, it is nevertheless a significant, and any amount of investment in this industry directly perpetuates systemic injustice and is unacceptable.