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Private Prisons: Incarceration for Profit Yields Abuses

Policymakers should be mindful of the distortions to our criminal justice policies that are inherent in our reliance on the for-profit prison industry. The insertion of the profit motive into our criminal justice system perverts policy decisions along the entire spectrum of criminal justice policy, from sentencing through the parole process. These are policy decisions that should be based on the interests of justice and the broader society, not corporate profits.

Private Prisons: Incarceration for Profit Yields Abuses

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark Supreme Court decision that gave poor defendants the right to counsel, it would be nice to celebrate. That case, taken together with the 1967 decision In re Gault, which gave juveniles the same rights in court as adults, stands for the principle that process matters in our system of justice; when faced with the awesome power of the state, the accused — rich or poor, old or young — must be properly represented.

A new book puts a damper on the celebration, revealing just how random and impoverished justice can be, and how flimsy the right to counsel. In “Kids for Cash,” the investigative reporter William Ecenbarger tells the story behind a corruption scandal so brazen and cruel it defies imagination. Between 2003 and 2008, two Pennsylvania judges accepted millions of dollars in kickbacks from a private juvenile detention facility in exchange for sending children — girls and boys, some as young as 11 — to for-profit jail.

After years of litigation, private prison operator Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) has just agreed to a $600,000 settlement to compensate inmates at a Colorado facility for alleged prison staff-inflicted injuries that landed 13 inmates in the hospital. The injuries resulted from a six-hour 2004 riot that prison officials had failed to prepare for, even though they were warned it was likely to occur, according to the complaint.

CCA is the largest U.S. private prison firm, and the settlement comes in the latest allegation of abuse, violations, and abysmal living conditions at CCA and other private prison facilities. Private prisons are incentivized to maximize profit from imprisonment, spending their resources to lobby for more incarceration and garner new contracts, rather than providing the optimum conditions for rehabilitation. Lawmakers who are the beneficiaries of generous private prison contributions, meanwhile, are incentivized to look the other way as troubling conditions persist.

In an unprecedented experiment fueled by budget concerns, Ohio sold a state prison to Corrections Corporation of America in 2011. Within a year, a state audit of Lake Erie Correctional Institute, the nation’s first privately owned state prison, found rampant abuse and abysmal conditions well below state standards. The CCA prison was given another chance to pass, but flunked another inspection four months later. Independent reports continue to illuminate filthy, broken facilities, as well as much higher rates of crime and violence in and around the prison. In early April 2013, the ACLU of Ohio sent Ohio lawmakers a comprehensive timeline of the prison’s decline since CCA took over.

As the immigration reform debate heats up, private prison executives have made it clear that they are monitoring how it will affect their rates of incarceration. During a call with investors February 2013, Corrections Corporation of America CEO assured investors that there will “always be demand for beds”, reflecting concern that incarceration rates will actually go down. With many elements of reform left on the negotiating table, it is impressive just how much money the two major private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, have invested in the outcome.

Immigration detention has more than doubled private prison profits since 1995, and these corporations have not been shy about using their influence to lobby for incarceration-friendly policies, despite claims from both Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group that they do not take official positions on issues. Those sentenced for immigration offenses make up one of the fastest-growing segments of the United States’ overflowing federal prison population.

In a scathing consent decree in 2012, a federal judge described a Mississippi juvenile detention facility (MTC) run by second largest private prison company GEO Group as “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate, the sum of which places the offenders at substantial ongoing risk.” A year later, a report by court monitors concluded that Walnut Grove Corrections Facility is still rife with safety concerns.

Like all private prison firms, MTC has an incentive to profit from imprisonment rather than rehabilitate. The monitor’s report contains data showing that most of the state’s private prisons have assault rates that are two to three times that of publicly run facilities. At Walnut Grove, there are 27 assaults per 100 inmates, as compared to 7 inmates per 100 – the highest rate in any publicly run facility. Many public facilities have had one or zero assaults per hundred inmates. Mississippi has six private prison facilities, and the nation’s second-highest incarceration rate. Walnut Grove is one of a number of private facilities that have seen alarmingly high levels of abuse, violations and abysmal living conditions.

Private enterprise has fully entered the criminal justice system, and in the process, undermined and ruined it in the name of profit and at the expense of human rights.

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