It’s Time To End Private Prisons & Mass Incarceration: A Moving Plea

Today’s feature piece is on prison life, life that is bad in government-owned prisons, but far worse in private prisons. We cite Just Mercy: A Story of Justice & Redemption and offer a moving video from women “Lifers” in Munch State Prison. A must-read post.

Before we get to our feature, we offer a few announcements and a Legislative Update. Today’s focus is on systemic racism that characterizes our criminal justice system and HB 40, a bill that would ban private prisons in NM.

Legislative Update

While technical glitches and a constant refrain of “you need to unmute yourself” have characterized most hearings, by and large the process seems to be moving forward, with a significant positive factor being the ability of people from throughout the state to weigh in.

Retake Our Democracy has volunteers observing all hearings of Transformational Bills and many of our Priority bills. (See those bill lists at this link.) Volunteers are using a structured observation form to capture opposing positions on the bills, which is enabling us to identify the counter arguments.

We’ve added a few pages to our website to help you keep informed:

  • Legislative Alerts. Here you’ll find copies of all Alerts — pretty much daily now that the session is in full swing. We send them in the morning in order to capture hearings that are announced late in the evening, but this sometimes means you’ll be notified minutes before a hearing is to begin. We’re doing our best! For those who have not signed up for alerts, you can do so here.
  • Daily Hearing Schedule. Here you’ll find dates and times of all upcoming hearings whenever a Transformational Bill or Priority Bill is being heard.

“If it was not for Retake, I would not be able to really engage with this new style Legislature advocacy. You make it so understandable, accessible and comprehensive.”

Retake supporter

Retake Legislative Huddle, Fridays, 3:30-4:30 pm. Volunteers from across the state are working together to make advocacy easier. Dozens of these volunteers convene every Friday at 3:30 to debrief on the week and hone our advocacy strategies as we better understand the nuances of an online process. We’ve been told by many that these sessions are helping them understand the way the legislature really works and how to advocate more effectively. Click here to register for the meeting.

News In Brief

Two News In Briefs on the Desperate Need for Prison Reform: We set the table for our examination of the heartbreaking exposé of the prison industrial complex: Just Mercy.

Young people are particularly ill-suited to prison – detention renders them more likely to graduate from low-level juvenile offenders to lifetime criminals via a stint in corrections. Moreover, despite being seen as the ultimate “stick” to ensure social order, prison is not a deterrent for most forms of offending. Crime is largely impulsive or driven by complex external factors on decision-making – the notion that offenders are “rational agents” weighing up the cost and benefits of offending has been largely debunked.

From The Guardian: We know that prison doesn’t work. So what are the alternatives?”

Tender Mercy, HB 40 Private Prison Moratorium
and the Urgent Need for Criminal Justice Transformation

Sometimes things happen for a reason. My son and daughter-in-law bought us the book Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson as a holiday gift. I just finished it yesterday as I was preparing a post focused on HB 40, a bill that would prohibit the state from entering into new contracts with private prison operators and prohibit renewal of those contracts that are in place today. HB 40 is being heard today at 1:30 pm in House Consumer and Public Affairs. I hope this post encourages you to attend. Get the info you need to attend at this link.

Just Mercy is a searing indictment of the criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex. It is not a dry recitation of facts, but is focused on a series of inmates who have either been imprisoned for offenses they did not commit or were imprisoned as children under extraordinarily complex circumstances, none of which seemed to matter to the justice factory that churned out guilty verdicts and death or life in prison sentences as if those being sentenced were mere trifles. It is almost impossible to convey how horridly inhuman this system is. I read of:

  • Life sentences without parole handed down to a 13-year old boy who shot his father after he had witnessed his father beat his mother nearly to death;
  • A young mother sentenced to decades for writing bad checks to purchase Christmas gifts for her three young children;
  • A severely mentally disabled adolescent sentenced to life without parole for a crime he did not commit in a trial that was so far beyond what we might consider a rigged trial…and then forced to either pick cotton for pennies or spend his life in solitary. It is impossible to imagine how it must feel for a black man to be forced to pick cotton under the watchful eye of a chain gang of guards.

Stevenson does an excellent job of weaving together personal stories, legal procedures, and historic context, and you leave with an impression of just how much the current prison system, especially in the south, is an artifact of slavery. Over 2 million Americans are in prison today: 39% of them are black, while 42% of those on death row are black. Blacks comprise 13% of the US population, so their representation in the prison population is 3 times that proportion.

The Florida Department of Corrections built the Santa Rosa State Prison to house 1600 people in the 1990s, when America was opening prisons at a pace never before seen in human history. Between 1990 and 2005, a new prison opened in the United States every ten days. Prison growth and the resulting “prison industrial complex”–the business interests that capitalize on prison construction–made imprisonment so profitable that millions of dollars were spent lobbying state legislators to keep expanding the use of incarceration to respond to just about any problem. Incarceration became the answer to everything–healthcare problems, drug addiction, poverty that had led someone to write a bad check, child behavioral disorders, managing the mentally disabled poor, even immigration issues generated responses from legislators that involved sending people to prison. Never before had so much lobbying money been spent to expand the prison population, block sentencing reforms, create new crime categories and sustain the fear and anger that fuel incarceration than during the last twenty-five years in America.

From Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, p. 260

But it isn’t the numbers that tell this story, it is the stories themselves that strip bare the horrors of the prison industrial complex and how overtly it is embedded with systemic racism from arrest, to trial, to sentencing, to conditions in prison, to appeals. Stevenson describes in case after case how young teens, mothers, men with no prior criminal activity, and those suffering from acute mental health conditions are arrested without evidence or with coerced false testimony and tampered evidence, how charges are elevated far beyond the scale of purported offense, how judges refuse to allow evidence that would clearly exonerate the accused and then sentence them to decades in prison, to life without possibility of parole, or to death.

Most incarcerated women–nearly two-thirds–are in prison for nonviolent, low-level drug crimes or property crimes…I was shocked to find women in prison for such minor offenses. One of the first incarcerated woman I ever met was a young mother serving a long prison sentence for writing checks to buy her three young children Christmas gifts without sufficient funds in her checking account.

From Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, P. 236

As bad as the conditions described above are, they are still worse in private prisons. As with other large corporations, privately operated prisons are driven by one and only one thing: profit. That incentive results in prisons that:

  • Have zero incentive to offer educational, social or rehabilitative services;
  • Profit tremendously from what amounts to forced labor, as those who do not agree to work can be penalized or even subject to solitary confinement;
  • Have a perverse incentive to cite inmates for minor or false infractions, extending their prison terms, thus ensuring a steady overcrowded jail population.
  • Routinely limit access to health care, commit labor law violations, and promote overcrowded conditions managed by low-paid, poorly trained and understaffed personnel. It is barbaric.

New Mexico has the highest proportion of inmates in privately operated prisons of any state in the nation. Just yesterday, President Biden issued an executive order prohibiting the federal government from entering into new contracts with private prison operators or to renew existing contracts. HB 40 would do precisely the same thing, only related to state facilities. This is a barbaric system and one that should not be operated for profit.

HB 40 Private Detention Facility Moratorium will be heard TODAY. While this bill does not address many of the unjust, racist policies and practices that define our justice system, it is a step and it also brings front and center, the horror of a system that operates largely out of sight of most Americans. But it is not out of the sight of Black Americans who understand that the reality of prison life could be their future for even a minor traffic offense. And once the criminal justice systems gets its hands on Black Americans, minimum sentencing, three strikes you are out and life sentences for minor offenses all come in to play.

Please join me at today’s hearing. The blue link below will take you to a brief summary of the bill to inform your speaking points. A list of House Consumer and Public Affairs committee members is offered below the video. Please email and call to voice your support for HB 40.

Thursday, January 28, 1:30pmHouse Consumer and Public Affairs Committee (HCPAC) is scheduled to hear HB 40 Private Detention Facilities Moratorium Act. The bill is listed as first on the agenda. You can view the hearing at nmlegis.gov by going to Webcast in the top menu bar and finding the committee name. You can offer comment by clicking here and joining the Zoom at 1:30 p.m.

We close with a moving song offered by women “lifers” from one of the most inhumane prisons in the US.

In solidarity and hope,

Paul & Roxanne

House Consumer & Public Affair Committee (HCPAC)



Categories: Criminal Justice, Uncategorized

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2 replies

  1. Another must read on private prisons is Shaun Bauer’s account of going undercover in a CCA prison. Here it is in Mother Jones–he turned it into a book. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/06/cca-private-prisons-corrections-corporation-inmates-investigation-bauer/

  2. Yes! Magazine did an insightful study of incarceration in the United States several years ago. At that time, probably still now, the US had the highest population of people in prison of any country in the world!! Having volunteered in Oregon prisons for years, there are ways to make prison an educational and moral experience for the person. Even so, I had two young men in my meditation class that committed their murders in their teens and would most likely spend most of the adult life in prison. I attended the parole hearing of one of them and even after 20 years in prison, the system and the victim’s family were not ready to move on from a horrible mistake that occurred while under the influence of drugs. Where is the forgiveness, the humanity in that?

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