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Profit, prison, and privatization

The PoliticOle
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The brokenness of America’s prison system is an absolute tragedy, and it has far-reaching consequences for our nation as a whole.

Correction: please see the editor's note at the end of this post.

“Orange is the New Black” is garnering due praise for its thrilling plot-line, delicious wit, and engaging host of diverse characters.  Set in prison, the concentrated social tensions regarding race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, and religion spark some hostility, but are also overpowered by friendship, respect, love, and camaraderie.  Though tenuous at times, this amity is necessary as the inmates face the dark horrors behind bars.

Outside of the hit drama, the horrors remain; violence, rape, harassment, fraud, starvation, solitary confinement, gang tyranny, substance abuse, inadequate facilities, and a lack of proper medical attention.  There is also the disturbingly large number of people who are not prepared to successfully assimilate back into society, or become repeat offenders instead of being truly rehabilitated.  The brokenness of America’s prison system is an absolute tragedy, and it has far-reaching consequences for our nation as a whole.

Bias and corruption within Congress, law enforcement, and the courts also contribute to the staggering lack of justice in the system.  From “Stop and Frisk” to incongruous incarceration ratios, racial discrimination is corrupting not only the application, but also the design of the law. For example, powder cocaine is less severely punished than crack cocaine, and contrary to usage statistics, those arrested for crack violations are disproportionately black, while powder cocaine maintains a reputation of being a drug for wealthy whites. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 aimed to remedy the disparity, but it does not apply retroactively toward the sentences of those prosecuted at the state level, and the disparity has not been completely eliminated from federal policy.

Our prison population has grown by 790% since 1980, with the advent of the “War on Drugs.” Not by coincidence, this increase has been accompanied by the growth of an entire private industry aiming to profit from – and motivated to encourage – the highest incarceration rate in the world. Lawmakers first embraced outsourcing to private correctional facilities as a cost-cutting option. These companies inherently value profit over the welfare and rehabilitation of the people in their custody.  The more bunks filled, the more money they make.  The resulting maltreatment and recidivism has long term costs for the health of our communities, whose tax money is paying for this broken system.

Recently, the Correctional Corporation of America – the biggest name in the industry – has lost four contracts due to a combination of maltreatment and fraud. Idaho’s now infamous “Gladiator School” was understaffed by the CCA, which relied on prison gangs to control the population.  Adding fraud to negligence, the CCA has admitted to falsifying nearly 4,800 hours of staffing records, so state money was paying them for security work that wasn’t happening.

The CCA has also lost two contracts in Texas, and another in Mississippi.  It isn’t the only private company that Mississippi has had problems with, either.  The American Civil Liberties Union has recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of prisoners at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility. Instead of providing incarceration and treatment for its severely mentally ill prisoners, the private facility is allegedly responsible for human rights violations and horrific maltreatment. The list of ongoings at EMCF includes denied or delayed medical treatment, stabbings, beatings, suicides, sexual assault, false record-keeping, malnourishment, unsanctioned medication, officers using physical violence on prisoners, plague-like rat infestations, and solitary confinement for weeks, months, and even years.  As the EMCF suit unfolds, and despite the souring history between Mississippi and privatized prisons, the state is seeking to replace the CCA with another private company.

The private prison industry may neglect its prisoners, but it sure keeps a keen eye on its lobbying power in Congress.  It has spent millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign donations in the last year alone, encouraging increased incarceration rates, lengthened sentences, and more detention of criminal immigrants.  Companies have also been found guilty of bribing judges to increase convictions.  Meanwhile, their profits are skyrocketing.  Another company, GEO, has gone from bringing in $16.9 million in 2000 to a net income of $78.6 million. The CCA, which was close to bankruptcy in 2000, brought in a whopping $162 million in net income last year.

There is a multitude of complex factors to be addressed in our nation’s systems of justice and imprisonment.  However, only one stands out so conspicuously, loud as an orange jumpsuit. Private prison companies are receiving public funds to neglect, abuse, cheat, and corrupt.  Their malevolent efforts receive profitable rewards and few consequences.  The moral and economic costs are too devastatingly high to let this corruption continue.  We need to end and reverse the privatization of prisons.

Editor's Note: On August 28th both Madeline and I were contacted by the Senior Director of Public Affairs for the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) requesting that we make a correction regarding Madeline’s claim that the CCA “lost four contracts due to a combination of maltreatment and fraud.”

The CCA states that in Idaho and Mississippi, the contract that is necessary to operate their correctional facility was set to expire, and the state chose to pursue a path that they felt was best for the taxpayer. According to the CCA, in Texas, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was required by their legislation to close two facilities due to budget reductions, and it elected to close the CCA’s Dawson State Jail and the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility. 

The CCA also state that they do not lobby for any policies that determine the basis or duration of an individual’s incarceration.

If there are any more concerns about this blog post, please contact the PoliticOle Editor-in-Chief Martin Raabe at raabe@stolaf.edu.

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Madeline Burbank, of Cottage Grove, MN, is a Sociology major at St. Olaf College. She is a regular PoliticOle Columnist. 

This post was written by Madeline Burbank and originally published on The PoliticOle. Follow the PoliticOle on Twitter: @StOlafPolitical.

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