This weekend I was in the mood to watch a documentary, so I looked through Netflix and found one called 13th. 13th, whose name refers to the thirteenth amendment (the one that abolished slavery), looks at the interconnected American history of mass incarceration, criminal justice and racism. It covers much of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st century, and it conveys a point of view by combining visual evidence, including primary sources and video footage, with interviews with renowned scholars, activists, and politicians.
In its discussion of mass incarceration, the issues of for-profit prison and privatization of prison services come up. The figures involved in the documentary all condemn the recently popular practice of contracting out services like phone and food within prisons, as they tend to be long-term contracts and end up hurting prisoners, who have little recourse if they are not adequately provided for. The discussion turns to the question of how this and similar practices came to be: how did corporations gain access to American prisons and succeed in exploiting them as a labor force and a market for overpriced services? One of the culprits is ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.
By its own description, ALEC is an organization dedicated to making advances for the causes of free market and limited government by creating a forum in which private sector representatives and elected officials participate. The idea is that this dialogue will produce legislation that is good both for businesses and ordinary citizens.
But as the media has begun to report in the last half-decade, the open forum that ALEC claims to support is really more accurately described as a direct line of influence by big corporations and special interests groups over local politicians. The whole body of members meets and votes in secret, with media not given any access to their events, and it has been uncovered recently that the biggest function of ALEC is the feeding of “model bills” to local politicians in exchange for money and support.
As it turns out, this type of unfettered corruption is highly conducive to exploitation of the most vulnerable members of society.
The most egregious example given in the documentary is that of a private prison in the southwest of the United States owned by a company-member of ALEC. This particular company secured a contract from the state government to operate a prison and take a number of inmates from the public prison population of the state. This number was fixed and guaranteed for the life of the contract. The effect of this was to provide an incentive for the state government to increase its prison population by enough to fill this new prison. The state resolved this problem by taking the recommendation of ALEC — among whose members was the company running the prison in question — to pass a bill detaining undocumented immigrants for less severe crimes. This solved the problem by arresting large numbers of undocumented immigrants and putting them in the prison.
There are hundreds of other examples of ALEC doing this kind of thing, and its growing publicity, beginning in 2010 when a whistleblower leaked 800 model bills on the website alecexposed.org, has only begun to cause companies to drop membership. In the last six years, Coca-Cola, Kraft, Amazon, Proctor and Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Best Buy, General Motors, Wallgreens, Sally Mae, IBM, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and many more have dropped membership. But still a large number of companies remain, and even relatively small and inconspicuous companies like the one discussed above can take advantage.
ALEC is responsible for pushing and sometimes passing legislation exempting local governments from paying a living wage, privatizing schools, voter ID laws, and, most notoriously, the Stand Your Ground law that was the basis for the trial of Trayvon Martin.