There’s been so much going on the news in the past few weeks that it can be hard to keep up with the increasing parade of exploitation and oppression coming from around the world. But one story from a few months ago caught my eye recently – it was barely covered by major news organizations at the time, despite being the kind of thing we should all be bothered by.
The story concerns an American judge named Mark Ciavarella, of Pennsylvania. Earlier this year a court ordered him to pay $1.2m in compensation to his victims. His crime? Selling children to the prison-industrial complex. Ciavarella and another judge, Michael Conahan, were found guilty of accepting millions of dollars of cash from the builder of a private youth prison in Pennsylvania, in exchange for finding young people guilty of their accused crimes. Ciavarella twisted the judicial process around, making it much harder for these kids to defend themselves, denying them their legal rights, and sending children as young as 10 years to these private prisons, often for extremely minor crimes.
This is obviously disgusting. But supporters of our current penal system will say it’s just a few bad apples, rather than anything systematic. Actually, it’s a lot more serious than that. Privately-owned prisons are becoming more common around the world – they are prisons built by developers and security corporations, which are designed to make profit for the companies that run them. The profit comes from the government paying them a sum of money for every prisoner they house. This means that private prisons have two main interests – incarcerating as many people as possible, and spending as little money as possible on looking after their prisoners (through poorer quality food, fewer security officers, fewer activities for prisoners, and so on). The more successfully they perform these two tasks, the more profit they make.
This is problematic because the prison system is generally used as a way to ensure that the powerful remain powerful, and those with nothing remain at the bottom. There is already a much higher chance of being sent to prison if you are poor than if you are rich, and in some cases simply being in poverty is a reason to send someone to prison – think of homeless people who are told they are trespassing, or illegally asking for money from passers-by. Many people have had almost everything taken away from them by our political and economic system – they have lost their houses, their jobs, their money, and now they lose their freedom. And why? So that private developers – people who are at the top of our economic pyramid – can make more money.
The example of Ciavarella and his associates is one of the worst cases of this exploitation – of taking away people’s lives for profit. But it is just the tip of the iceberg. Many private prisons have agreements with local governments to guarantee high occupancy rates – that means the governments are agreeing to send a certain number of people to prison, regardless of how many crimes they commit. That means more laws need to be created to make more things illegal, and ruin more lives.
This is now way to run an economy, to turn a profit, to make a living. We as humans have so much ingenuity, and so much ability to make good things happen – but instead of working together to do good, we have turned against one another, and become a society of people who lose everything, and people who win everything. We hope to change that at the Ana Shell Fund, even if it takes a long time and a lot of energy – we hope to usher in a more cooperative and fair society, where everyone can be a winner.
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