Gender and Critical Drug Studies: The Gendered Origins of Privatized Prison Drug Treatment

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Jill McCorkel, associate professor of sociology ad criminology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. In it, she explores the origins of how drug treatment and rehabilitation programs entered private prisons for women. Her full article appears in a special co-produced edition of SHAD and CDP, Special Issue: Gender and Critical Drug Studies. Enjoy!

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Dr. Jill McCorkel

I was recently in a taxi on my way to a speaking engagement in Dublin, Ireland. When the driver asked me what I’d be discussing, I told him I research prison privatization. “Ahh, yes,” he said, “the corporations run the American prisons and that’s why you have such a problem over there. They want everyone in prison. More prisoners, more profit!”

Although legal scholars would likely challenge his claim on the grounds that comparatively few prisoners in the U.S. are held in private prisons, his comments are not entirely off base. Over the last 30 years, private companies have become increasingly influential players in the American prison system. The source of their ascendancy is not private prisons. Rather, it is in the provision of a vast array of services ranging from cafeteria food to phone cards, medical care to behavioral health programming. Private companies contract with local, state, and federal authorities to provide these services in publicly managed prisons, jails, and community-based correctional facilities. The contracts are a lucrative source of profit and require little in the way of oversight. The duration and scope of privatized correctional services vary, but among the most profitable are contracts that involve the provision of drug treatment programming to prisoners, parolees, and pretrial detentioners. Drug treatment and related rehabilitative services are a multi-billion dollar (USD) a year industry. In my article for the special issue of Contemporary Drug Problems, I explore the origins of privatized, prison-based drug treatment. I argue that during the War on Drugs, women’s prisons were utilized as testing grounds for private companies interested in getting into the expanding business of drug rehab.

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