Profiting from Punishment: The Dangers of Privatizing Imprisonment

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In an unbelievable act of hubris, the for-profit prison company, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), recently wrote to 48 state governments with an offer they must refuse. CCA wants to take over the public prison systems in exchange for a 20-year contract PLUS a guarantee that the prisons be at least 90% full. In the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, a nation desperately in need of reform in the criminal justice system, this corporation wants it written into law that they will have a pipeline of bodies to fill their cells and their pockets for at least two decades. Unfortunately, we have too many states where the Republican legislators making the decisions are only too eager to sell off public resources to private industry. When for-profit prison corporations get involved directly in funding politicians, they donate to Republicans 80% of the time.

Despite the fact that the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, we hold approximately 25% of its prisoners. Between 1970 and 2005, particularly with the advent of the War on Drugs, the population of people incarcerated in the U.S. has grown by 700%, despite decreases in crime. Instead of moving toward a reduction in the number of incarcerated individuals, we have companies like CCA and the GEO Group, Inc. lobbying to guarantee that the criminal justice system stays just as it is for at least the next 20 years. In fact, according to the ACLU, CCA actually identified reforms to drug enforcement or sentencing laws as a potential threat to their business in their 2010 annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

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For-profit corporations have already significantly infiltrated the criminal justice system with a stunning 1600% increase in the number of prisoners housed in private prisons since 1990. The result is the top two private prison corporations making almost $3 billion a year of taxpayer dollars as profit. These corporations came on the scene in the 1980s with promises of lower costs to taxpayers. The evidence on whether there is actual cost savings is mixed, but if there is any savings it is done through providing substandard services and reducing wages, resulting in the loss of middle class jobs. Most recently, an in-depth report by American Friends Service Committee concluded that private jails/prisons were actually costing the state of Arizona more than public facilities while also having safety and accountability issues. Furthermore, the for-profit industry steers states away from truly cost-saving efforts such as reducing overall incarceration rates. Instead of actions like reforming drug laws, utilizing probation or parole, and instituting sentencing reductions, the private prison industry lobbies to keep these potential cost saving strategies off the table.

Until 2010, CCA was a member of the American Legislative Executive Committee (ALEC), the secretive, corporate-run group busily attempting to manipulate laws across the country, and through this organization has written draft legislation for lawmakers in numerous states, but particularly in Arizona. In this way, the for-profit incarceration company, despite its protests to the contrary, had a behind-the-scenes hand in writing the SB 1070, “Papers Please,” immigration law. The result is a steady stream of detainees for CCA which holds the contract for immigrant detention centers. But, outside of Arizona, ALEC has also been busy nationwide writing legislation to ensure harsher sentencing across the board while reducing opportunities for probation and parole even for low-risk prisoners. This is the perverse incentive built into the very nature of private prisons to maximize the number of people who will become incarcerated and make sure they stay that way.

Scandals plague the for-profit industry. One that received a great deal of attention was the famous “Cash for Kids” case where Judge Mark Ciavarella sentenced juveniles to time in for-profit detention centers in exchange for kickbacks and Judge Michael Conahan was convicted for racketeering in connection to the case. But there is also the class action suit in Mississippi won by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU against the state’s use of privately run prisons after the GEO Group, Inc.’s prison was found to be abusing juveniles, especially by placing them in extended solitary confinement. Lawsuits have also been filed on behalf of prisoners who have received inadequate medical and mental health services from private companies contracted to provide prisoners with care while they are in custody. The ACLU has described other prison conditions as “atrocious” detailing how high staff turnover results in inexperienced staff who are unable to prevent violence behind bars or prevent prisoner escapes in otherwise preventable circumstances. In fact, studies have found that prisoners in private prisons were substantially more likely to be assaulted than those in public prisons.

Another issue is that removing individuals from their families has repercussions for everyone involved, and these effects have been felt particularly harshly in minority communities. For example, black women are incarcerated at a rate seven times greater than white women and 75% of them are mothers. At least one third of these women are locked up for non-violent, drug-related offenses. Their absence has a significant, devastating impact on their children. A growing number of Americans are also demanding that the criminal justice system reform drug laws that criminalize addiction and turn a public health issue into a matter of punishment.

Overall, Americans have to ask themselves if they can afford, morally or financially, to have yet another area of the public sphere dominated by the profit motive. Despite the fact that imprisonment costs taxpayers tremendous amounts of money, the for-profit industry opposes community-based alternatives that cost far less. The financial aspects of using imprisonment over other options are not the only considerations. Private prisons obviously have less motivation to insure that recidivism rates are reduced, because they want to maintain high numbers in their prison populations. They have little reason to guarantee rehabilitation is taking place, and even less reason to prevent crime from occurring.  They are subject to less oversight and regulation, and employ undertrained and underpaid staff, paving the way for increased abuse of prisoners.

There is still time for these 48 states to reject CCA’s audacious offer to take over their prison systems. Unfortunately, with infusions of cash on behalf of the private prison industry, we can’t necessarily trust our states’ lawmakers to do the right thing. Our best chance to head off more encroachment by corporations will have to be to apply intense counter-pressure to our representatives.

14 Replies to “Profiting from Punishment: The Dangers of Privatizing Imprisonment”

  1. Private prison companies are illegal; they have a built-in conflict of interest. Do they enforce the law, including prisoners Inalienable Rights, or do they maximize profit? No hard to guess.

  2. Such prisons are hard to reach via the law. Though functioning as an arm of the government, they are quick to respond that they are private entities not responsive to constitutional restraints, and although the effect of such a ploy has until now been only dilatory, I suspect they are anticipating the day when a corrupt and venal Supreme Court will say that even when private corporations are functioning as de facto governmental entities, they are outside the purview of constitutional review. At that point, we will have entered the world so slavered over by Ayn Rand.

  3. This is EXACTLY why we cannot privatize everything under the sun. I find it difficult that any sane person can rationalize something like this. It’s simple logic. Say prison A is set up in a town that has a low crime rate, however prison A’s profits depend on filling up most of their cells with inmates. Hello!! The town that prison A resides in isn’t going to have low crime rate very long. Lowering standards for incarceration, dubious trumped up charges, and an increase in arrests for very minor crimes will be par for the course. Let’s hear it for the collusion of big business and government politics. Yipee!!

    This issue has me really pissed. Public awareness on this needs to be kicked up a notch pronto!

  4. Yup. What’s so weird about objectivism is that on the other hand it is so socially liberal and pro human rights. It’s like Rand was constantly speaking out of both sides of her mouth.

  5. “Nice” people are going to have to realize that their “niceness” (read middle-class Protestant whiteness) won’t keep either themselves or their kids safe for long. Such things are always inflicted first on demonized “others”, until the practice is either legally or socially legitimated. Then…watch out!

  6. It appears that the GOP wants to privatize everything. Since they hate government, they would only have one GOP dictator in charge of the military and women’s sex organs. The rest would be privatized.

  7. People need to examine another aspect of the privatization of government… the way Florida has been privatizing nearly everything under the sun, especially those things associated with helping families.

    DCF is mostly privatized now, and it’s been a disaster (but most people don’t know that). The corporations have been forcing caseworkers to take so many cases that they HAVE to fake documents, otherwise they would be working so much that they couldn’t have time to sleep. They’re making things far harder for people to get help… a colleague of mine has been studying how the food stamp program was privatized and the system set up so that it is very user-UNfriendly. The caseworkers (contractors or employees of the corporation) have told of how things are done to make it more difficult to get help. (And on top of that, people are calling for things like eliminating “any sweets or luxuries” from being purchased with food stamps and forcing people to go on a survival diet.)

    A friend of mine has been protesting for a long time about how they’ve removed local organizations from the way children are cared for and how oversight and limitations have been reduced. He says that under privatization, the number of children who have died has increased, and the level of care reduced.

    Privatization is a failure from the word go… and all it really does is turn tax dollars over to rich people to stuff in their pockets, while punishing those who find themselves in a tough situation and needing help.

  8. This sounds more like the Charles Dickens area than the USA. Well, you also have the meanest, hateful to the poor, governor there is.

  9. That made me realize… with all of the times I’ve been pulled for bogus reasons… I’d be stuck in one of those “for-profit” prisons rather quickly. (Of course, it gets that far, they’ll probably criminalize being a liberal or Democrat.)

    I wonder if they got their way, they’d allow decent medical care for their inmates? Knowing how corporations are, it probably would be to the lowest bidder, and if you got more than a sniffle, you were out of luck. Same for food. How about a little GM food loaded with poisons??? It’s cheap, after all!

  10. Exactly. Isn’t that the case in AZ with Aripao?
    Prisons should be run by the state and state has accountability and jobs for the state.
    Of this a Repig program NO?

  11. Alaska prison are run by Joe Schmidt who fucked Sarah in HS. so close friend.
    Palingates has many write ups Prisongate:
    http://palingates.blogspot.com/search/label/prisongate

    AK contracts with AZ and AZ has private prisons that Joe Aripao and Jan Brewer are connected too. And according to Palingates one of prime proponents of private prisons is…drumroll, Newt Gingrich!

  12. (Laugh) you’ve described the area well.

    I posted a reply containing a link to Hraf on the “Santorum is a hateful master of deceit” thread, that I’ll also briefly mention here, and which shows how crazy this area is.

    http://www.theledger.com/article/20120318/NEWS/120319321?p=1&tc=pg

    The atheists are protesting religious practices by the churches which in essence declare anyone not like them to be unwelcome. I got a big hoot out of it.

    I also mentioned that we’d caught people sneaking onto our property with oily hands… they claimed to be here to leave tracts on our cars, but with hands covered with oil AND no tracts visible… and we’d found oily handprints in the past.

    By mentioning this, I’m also trying to tell people that this sort of stuff is spreading like cancer, and it’s heading for your neck of the woods if we don’t stop it.

  13. We already have Judges accused of increased sentences where the private prison systems are in place. This is just so bizarre. I feel like I am living in an episode of the Twilight Zone.

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