The Pursuit and Perils of Prisons for Profit

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a Nashville-based privately owned company, has made a sweet-sounding offer to corrections officials in 48 American states: “We’ll buy your prisons and run them, if you guarantee us a 90% occupancy rate for the next 20 years.”

The statement is at once absurd and rational.

Absurd because it dismisses human suffering, be it that of victims or that of prisoners, to one side of an equation in the market place.

More bodies equal more income.

Greater imprisonment becomes a pre-condition for profit.

For the same reason, the statement is rational.  Why else get into the business of running prisons, if not to make large profits?

But imprisonment rates should not be a function of profit-making for private or public bodies.

Because rehabilitation has proven to be largely ineffective in our overcrowded, oppressive, and resource-scarce prisons, punishment is the only remaining excuse behind imprisonment.

Since the aim of imprisonment is punishment by the state, the burden should rest with the state.

Privatize jails and we abdicate our (albeit abysmal) responsibility to how we run jails.  We can blame a third-party for filthy cells covered in urine and feces, for the spread of diseases (which will eventually reach the rest of the population), for the lock-downs that force people into crammed cells for more than 20 hours a day, and for the physical and sexual abuse that take place.

But we (the state) are the ones who deal with our collective social problems with “deviant” behaviour by banishing people into isolation and destructive environments.  So we should bear the responsibility for those persons while they are in our institutions (and when they get out.)

Even in the absence of moral objections to prisons for profit, there is reason to flee from prison privatization. Currently, all signs point in one direction: private prisons are worse than public ones.

Here are some of the proven dangers:

1)  Corruption and kickbacks:

The fact that privately-run jails increase their profits through greater imprisonment opens the door for undue influence and corruption, whereby state officials, including judges, could send people to jail for personal gain.

Indeed, this is precisely what happened with two Pennsylvania judges, Michael T. Conahan and Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., who sent thousands of young persons to two privately-run jails and secured millions of dollars in kickbacks.  Many of those young people were first time “offenders,” such as a 17-year-old exemplary student who set up a spoof MySpace page that mocked the assistant principal of her school.  She got three months in jail.

Another young person, a 17-year-old star athlete, was found with drug paraphernalia.  Ciavarella sentenced him to several months of jail and a “wilderness camp.”  He missed his entire senior year and, according to his mother, never got over the ordeal.  He committed suicide at the age of 23.[i]

Ciavarella also locked up a young person who had stolen a jar of nut-meg, and one 10-year-old.

2)  Health and safety failures:

It’s not that provincially and federally-run prisons operate at desirable health and safety standards; it’s that privately-run ones fair so much worse.  A  CCA-owned prison in Ohio at once violated 47 health and safety standards.  Among those violations: no local fire plan to deal with inmates from locked areas in case of emergencies.[ii]

3)  Greater abuse:

Physical, sexual and emotional abuse, whether at the hands of jail guards or other prisoners, happen in state-run prisoners, as well.  But the abuses are likely to be worse in private prisons.  Inadequate training, understaffing, health and safety risks, unsanitary cells, lack of access to medical doctors or to therapists, and insufficient “recreation” time increase tension levels.  Staff will feel less safe.  These conditions make jails ripe for abuse.

The shocking actions of staff at one Mississippi Youth Detention Centre, Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, was at the centre of a recent lawsuit.  Drug smuggling by correctional workers and sexual and physical assault of the young prisoners were just some of the horrific instances of abuse of power that took place occurred at Walnut Grove.[iii]

4)  Offenders may get out even worse than when they leave state prisons:

There is plenty of proof that prisoners, especially young ones, leave jail in worse condition than before, and that many are likely to recommit offences.   This problem will be exacerbated when jail conditions are worse, when there is greater abuse, less access to education, and less counseling and therapy.

5) The ultimate cost to society is much higher:

While governments may enjoy a brief windfall when they sell prisons to third-parties, society will pay a greater and more significant long-term cost: greater mental health problems, greater recidivism, more disease, inadequate levels of education and training, potentially more expensive law-suits, the list goes on.  Every flaw and every evil associated with imprisonment will multiply.

In the end, a strategy with the aim of reducing costs short-term could make everyone bankrupt, both financially and morally.

6) Diminished incentive to explore and implement alternative dispute resolution, restorative justice and other initiatives that require would decrease imprisonment:

If a government is locked into a 20-year contract to supply a firm with commoditized people, then how can they honestly implement processes that might result in a breach of that contract?

Despite the many problems with private prisons in American jails, the trend doesn’t seem to be stopping, as evidenced by CCA’s recent offer to 48 American states to buy their correctional facilities in exchange for certain guarantees by the state.

At least one firm has seized the opportunity to knock on Canadian government doors for business opportunities in prisons.

If we don’t watch out, the same problems could reach us here, in Canada.

With the closure of Kingston Penitentiary, and the expected increase in our prison population, which will result directly from the “tough-on-crime” changes made by the current government, we in Canada will see a rise in the cost of maintaining our prisons.

With a government whose rhetoric, at least, is focused on less public spending, one wonders how all these added and mounting costs will be covered.

Could some of these costs be ultimately “covered” through privatization?  Correctional Services of Canada has urged Vic Toews, Canada’s Minister of Public Safety, to consider the privatization of at least some services, such as cleaning and food preparation in federal institutions.  GEO Group, the very “enterprise” that ran the Walnut Grove facility where young people were sexually assaulted by the staff, met with Mr. Toews last October and lobbied the government to privatize its jails, or at least some portion of its penitentiaries services.[iv]

Julie Carmichael, a spokeswoman for Vic Toews, has said, “We have no appetite to pursue fully privatized prisons.”[v]  But that begs the question, “What are you considering privatizing?”

Despite claims by the Canadian government that it is not considering the privatization of prisons, the current trend in the criminal justice system seem to carve a different path—one ripe for handing over the responsibility for running jails to companies focused on making a million bucks.

Perhaps it’s reassuring that our one affair with private prisons (in Penetanguishene) was a short-lived one. But people also have a habit of flirting with failed experiments, in part because we forget, in part because we don’t pay attention, in part because of the misguided notion that “saving money” is both just and not costly, in the long run.

Mostly, however, so long as we believe that it is morally justifiable to treat human life, liberty and dignity as simply a function of the market equation, we will manipulate it, dispense with it, and mistreat it, just as we always have.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Pursuit and Perils of Prisons for Profit

  1. AnnieD

    Those are terrible stories. I can’t imagine how frustrated and devastated the parents of those kids must feel. And helpless, which is the worst feeling of all. What can we do to stop this from happening here?

    • Annie: to start, we have to resist all temptation to privatize prisons here. But we have to go beyond that. Abuse in prisons happens is state-run ones as well. It is the inevitable consequence of imprisonment. We have to drastically reduce our use of prisons: eliminate it for all but the most hopeless cases. Young people should rarely, if ever, be jailed. Abuse in our system? Look up Ashley Smith’s case. Horrific beginning and horrific end. People with mental health problems, mental illnesses, pregnant mothers, people with little coping skills, aboriginals, black men….all jailed (and often jailed disproportionately, except for the pregnant mothers), when jail does nothing to help them be better people, better at living without crime. Ultimately, prevention and investment in mental health, opportunities, education…all better answers.
      We will always have some crime. It’s our response that we need to change.

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