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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

WSJ: “Prisons for Profit”, business booming

Today’s Wall Street Journal  had a disturbing article.

Larger Inmate Population Is Boon to Private Prisons

Prison companies are preparing for a wave of new business as the economic downturn makes it increasingly difficult for federal and state government officials to build and operate their own jails.

Disturbing to me, because at a time when our left of center community is focused on Gitmo, we tend to forget the inmates who are warehoused in our nations prisons, whose numbers are growing at alarming rates.

The United States already has this dubious distinction:

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world at 737 persons imprisoned per 100,000 (as of 2005). A report released Feb. 28, 2008 indicates that in the United States more than 1 in 100 adults is now confined in an American jail or prison. The United States has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated population


(Photo from AP Photo by Rich Pedroncelli)

Ever mindful of the market, here’s more of what WSJ had to say:

The Federal Bureau of Prisons and several state governments have sent thousands of inmates in recent months to prisons and detention centers run by Corrections Corp. of America, Geo Group Inc. and other private operators, as a crackdown on illegal immigration, a lengthening of mandatory sentences for certain crimes and other factors have overcrowded many government facilities.

Prison-policy experts expect inmate populations in 10 states to have increased by 25% or more between 2006 and 2011, according to a report by the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts.

Private prisons housed 7.4% of the country’s 1.59 million incarcerated adults in federal and state prisons as of the middle of 2007, up from 1.57 million in 2006, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a crime-data-gathering arm of the U.S. Department of Justice.

So just who is CCA?

Corrections Corp., the largest private-prison operator in the U.S., with 64 facilities, has built two prisons this year and expanded nine facilities, and it plans to finish two more in 2009. The Nashville, Tenn., company put 1,680 new prison beds into service in its third quarter, helping boost net income 14% to $37.9 million. “There is going to be a larger opportunity for us in the future,” said Damon Hininger, Corrections Corp.’s president and chief operations officer, in a recent interview.

Here’s a link to Corrections Corp.

Danny Glover narrarates a documentary for Grassroots Leadership,

a multi-racial team of organizers who help Southern community, labor, faith, and campus organizations think critically, work strategically and take direct action to end social and economic oppression, gain power, and achieve justice and equity.

Grassroots Leadership’s goal is to put an end to abuses of justice and the public trust by working to abolish for-profit private prisons. As the statement of principles for the campaign reads:

“For-profit private prisons, jails and detention centers have no place in a democratic society. Profiteering from the imprisonment of human beings compromises public safety and corrupts justice. In the spirit of democracy and accountability, we call for an end to all incarceration for profit.”

Recently in California, Firm bids to run Calif. inmate medical system

SACRAMENTO-A private prison company that has been lobbying the Schwarzenegger administration and is a campaign contributor to the governor’s causes has made a bid to operate an overhauled inmate medical system, a move that could conflict with court-ordered reforms, according to a document obtained Monday by The Associated Press. The offer by The GEO Group Inc. of Florida caught the court-appointed receiver overseeing reform of California’s inmate health care system by surprise.

In the five-page internal memo obtained by the AP, the receiver’s chief of staff repeatedly makes it clear that he believes the bid was solicited by the Schwarzenegger administration and questions the administration’s motives. Chief of staff John Hagar writes that The GEO Group has spent more than $300,000 lobbying the governor’s office and Legislature since January. Campaign records on file with the secretary of state’s office show the company also made a $50,000 contribution last month to the campaign for Proposition 11, the redistricting initiative on the November ballot backed by Schwarzenegger.

“The solicitation is all the more troublesome because the Federal Court has taken responsibility away from the Secretary of Corrections concerning the delivery of medical services,” Hagar wrote in the memo to court receiver Clark Kelso.

Related news in CA:Trial begins over California prison crowding

SAN FRANCISCO-Attorneys for the state and inmates’ rights groups clashed Tuesday at the opening of a high-stakes trial over whether California’s jam-packed prisons have led to unconstitutionally poor medical and mental health care.

If the special panel of three federal judges rules against the state, another trial will be held next year to determine remedies. Possible solutions include an order to release inmates before they have completed their full sentences, a move opposed by the Schwarzenegger administration. Attorneys for the inmates want the prison population reduced from about 156,300 inmates to 110,000.

Further delay in solving California’s prison crowding will mean only “additional pain, suffering and death for our clients,” Michael Bien, one of the attorneys representing inmates, said during Tuesday’s hearing. “The California prison system is dangerous and broken,” he said.

At issue is whether overcrowding is the leading cause of medical and mental health care that the federal courts already have found to be substandard-and in some cases so negligent that it has directly contributed to inmates’ deaths. The Schwarzenegger administration says steps already are being taken to reduce the population. The governor and Republican lawmakers say an early release plan would endanger the public.

The WSJ piece does mention the opposition:

Some groups accuse the private prisons of neglecting inmates or of putting them in bad conditions. “Profit is still a motive and it’s structured into the way these prisons are operated,” says Judy Greene, a justice-policy analyst for Justice Strategies, a nonprofit studying prison-sentencing issues and problems. “Just because the system has expanded doesn’t mean there is evidence that conditions have improved.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed lawsuits involving several prison companies over the past decade alleging poor treatment of inmates. Last year, the organization and other parties filed a lawsuit against Corrections Corp. and the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm in federal court in San Diego, alleging that the company was operating an overcrowded, unsafe immigrant-detention center in that city. Detainees were routinely assigned in groups of three to sleep in two-room cells — meaning one had to sleep on the floor near the toilet — or to temporary beds in recreation rooms and other common spaces, according to the complaint. The suit also alleged that detainees had little access to mental-health care.

“We have serious concerns about for-profit prison companies because they are notorious for cutting essential costs that need to be provided to maintain a safe and constitutional environment for prisoners,” says Jody Kent, a public-policy coordinator for the ACLU’s National Prison Project.

The ACLU National Prison Project

Prisoners’ Rights:

The ACLU’s National Prison Project is the only national litigation program on behalf of prisoners. Since 1972, the NPP has represented more than 100,000 men, women and children. The NPP continues to fight unconstitutional conditions and the “lock ’em up” mentality that prevails in the legislatures. Learn more about our project and take action to protect the rights guaranteed to all Americans.

The WSJ closes with this sanctimonious quote:

Louise Grant, a Corrections Corp. spokeswoman, says the company’s prison practices complied with federal standards and that it regularly discloses capacity levels and other information in federal filings.

“Our government partners monitor us daily,” Ms. Grant says. “There is no cutting corners.”

Cutting corners, is exactly the problem that prison privatization calls into question.

PBS did a documentary called Prisons for Profit. A transcript is available

In his book Merchandizing Prisoners Byron Eugene Price discusses the history and and his conclusions about privatization:

Eugene Price illustrates that fiscal issues are often trumped by political factors when it comes to the decision to privatize. He examines the potential reasons why a state might choose to privatize its prisons, and considers financial and political aspects in depth. Ultimately he concludes that the desire to save costs is not the primary reason for state prison privatization. Rather, the more plausible explanations revolve around political and ideological factors such as the party of the governor and the overall political and ideological culture of the state. This work sets the record straight about the decision to privatize state prisons, revealing the political bias that often drives these policy choices.

As far back as 1999 Alex Freidmann reported an “insiders” inmates view of private lockups:

I have an insider’s view of what it’s like to do time at a for-profit prison, having been incarcerated at the Corrections Corporation of America-operated South Central Correctional Center in Clifton, Tennessee from 1992 until February 1998, when I was transferred to another facility after I openly criticized CCA. First and foremost, when it comes to private prisons the bottom line is financial. CCA facilities have signs prominently posted in the administration buildings that proclaim “Yesterday’s Stock Closing,” followed by a dollar amount. Some people say that crime doesn’t pay, but CCA stock is presently trading at about $12 a share on the New York Stock Exchange.

CCA and other private prison operators say they can do the job cheaper. However, what private jailers call “cost effectiveness” is known less euphemistically as “cutting corners.” The impact of fiscal considerations at CCA/South Central was evident on a daily basis, from rationed distribution of blankets and toilet paper to the poor quality of food. But those aren’t the biggest corners being cut.

Approximately 70% of all prison-related expenses come from staffing costs — and this is where CCA really saves, beginning with sub-par starting salaries. Consequently, the employee turnover rate is unusually high, and vacant positions are left unfilled for long periods of time to save on wages and benefits. After I was transferred to a state prison I immediately noticed the increased number of guards present — more than I’d ever seen at CCA/South Central.

The issue isn’t privatizing prisons, but rather privatizing prisoners. Inmates, traditionally the responsibility of state and federal governments, increasingly are being contracted out to the lowest bidder. Convicts have become commodities. Certainly offenders should be punished for committing crimes, but should private companies and their stockholders profit from such punishment?

For more background on this issue see Private Prisons: Profits of Crime by By Phil Smith. He concludes:

Private prisons are a symptom, a response by private capital to the “opportunities” created by society’s temper tantrum approach to the problem of criminality in the context of free-market supremacy. Dostoevsky once remarked that he measured the quality of a society by the quality of its prisons. In the present case it may be as appropriate to judge us by their quantity, too. In either case, the judgment would be harsh indeed.

I have not discussed just who the majority of inmates are demographically, nor have I addressed the role of the War on Drugs in all of this, and the inequities of sentencing for minorities. A subject for future diaries.

I do hope, that as we move into a new Obama administration, that they, along with our community will not forget to address this, and that we will be a voice for a huge segment of our population that remains voiceless, and voteless.

Cross-posted at The Daily Kos  


  1. Our prison population is a disgrace to this country. It is ridiculous that we have so many of our citizens behind bars. It points to a failure in our society.

    On a related note, Dick Cheney has been indicted in Texas over his involvement with a prison management corporation.

    McALLEN, Texas (AP) — Vice President Dick Cheney and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have been indicted on state charges involving federal prisons in a South Texas county that has been a source of bizarre legal and political battles under the outgoing prosecutor.

    The indictment returned Monday has not yet been signed by the presiding judge, and no action can be taken until that happens.


  2. GrassrootsOrganizer

    someday I should enlighten ya’ll on what’s going on with “day programs” for mentally disabled adults.

    Oh hell, no time like the present.

    IT used to be that such stated sponsored programs were designed exclusively to enrich the lives of the mentally disabled through a sense of community and accomplishment while giving their caregivers a break.  These programs would conduct little “work projects”, usually craft oriented, so the participants could make a little money of their own and feel good about what they were able to produce.  They earned a little change and a portion of what they earned was folded back into the program for field trips, exercise programs, classes and fun.

    Now the focus of these programs is trending rapidly towards using the labor of the mentally challenged to line the pockets of the rats that own the corporate wing of these support programs.  The participants are now typically doing manufacturing piece work — I know of assembling seat belt harnesses, for example — eight hours a day five days a week.

    Here’s the rub — they are being paid 2 dollars a week for 40 hours of work.  The programs provide transportation and a crappy lunch, and also argue that it’s challenging to keep these folks on task so their productivity is low.  However, whatever they produce is sold at slightly under the cost of production by minimum wage workers and the rest goes in someone’s pocket.    

    The caregivers go along with the system because they have no other options to get a break from care giving.  They also appreciate some of the “extras” like support groups for parents and family outings. The participants appreciate being productive and getting out of the house as well as the pride of working.

    The question is — could we possible pay them more than the price of a two liter of pop per week?  Imagine how fulfilled these folks would feel if they were paid everything they earn beyond the free ride and the administrative costs?   Maybe they could buy their own clothes or a complete meal at McDonalds.  And should anyone be getting rich off the labor of mentally challenged persons and the desperate needs of their families?


  3. alyssa chaos

    For profit prisons are a booming business all around the country.

    A couple of weeks back Mother Jones did a kickass series of reports on jails. It details the cost both financially and socially. It covers both prisons and ICE detention centers. I really recommend it to anyone who wants to go further into the rabbit hole.

    And to no one’s surprise, Cheney has ties to the prison business, and has been indicted [Alberto Gonzales too] in S. Texas [in case you hadn’t seen it on dkos]

    Cheney’s indictment on a charge of engaging in an organized criminal activity criticizes the vice president’s investment in the Vanguard Group, which holds interests in the private prison companies running the federal detention centers. It accuses Cheney of a conflict of interest and “at least misdemeanor assaults” on detainees because of his link to the prison companies.


    the prison business is even too tempting for the VP to deny. hmmm…

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