Volume 112

Investing in Abolition

by Sandeep Singh Dhaliwal

This Article situates the prison within a broader macro-financial trend, what I call “community capture.” As private equity firms have consolidated the market for carceral services, they have also gained control over other essential social infrastructure, like housing and healthcare. By layering debt, fees, and aggressive profit expectations over companies or assets that provide for basic needs, their strategies intensify the economic pressures communities face. These strategies rely on various forms of coordination and legal protection from contestation. To demonstrate this process in the context of mass incarceration, this Article tells the story of Securus, a dominant carceral service company that had four different private equity owners in a six-year period.

This Article also explains the legal and political foundations of the carceral services market, which similarly demonstrate illuminating continuities, rather than differences, with the broader political economy. It offers a novel expression of how courts interpret what the Eighth Amendment demands of the state in terms of provisioning to prisoners: the provisioning of basic needs as credit. The proliferation of so-called “pay-to-stay” fees supports this interpretation in particular. This creditordebtor relationship ultimately compels prisoners to work to support the carceral system. In this sense, the Eighth Amendment represents an added constitutional layer that accommodates forced carceral labor. Meanwhile, austerity politics and notions of family responsibility help legitimize market-based provisioning in prisons. The ways in which debt and family responsibility operate in the wider economy find similar expression here. How it works “on the outside” tends to legitimize coercive dynamics “on the inside.”

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