Private Prisons: A Swift Slap in the Face

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Our criminal justice system may be where we most directly engage with the very essence of our government. It is the core of communal security balanced with individual liberty. It is an unsurprising and unforgettable foundation for the first set of amendments ratified with the final draft of our nation’s design. It is one place where society can immediately see what our government is all about: its character, its morals, what it does with its most vulnerable, and most importantly- how that is translated into a dependable process for a country’s operation; perhaps what could be called, the rule of law.

Inasmuch as politics can bifurcate from economics, there is a significant absence of capitalism (or any other form of economic theory) in the constructs of our democracy. We hold dear the 1st Amendment not because of its profitability, but because we believe in a society where it is unacceptable to take away freedom of speech, religion, petition, assembly, and press. We do the same for the right to an attorney, privacy rights, and all others we deem fundamental. We value these rights regardless of a monetary payout to the individuals that those rights protect, or the broader community that those individuals are a part of. Marriage is not sacred so the church can make a buck. Owning a firearm was not written into the Bill of Rights so the NRA could sell guns, and my guess is that Madison did not have any stock in the ink company that sold its product to magistrates issuing warrants under the 4th Amendment. When it comes to the most basic questions about defining a justice system, money was never the point.

I tend to argue that the founders’ foresight by-and-large withstands the test of time. The system is great, but not because it works perfectly through a laissez-faire approach. It is a beautiful system because it allows for brilliant minds with pure intentions to produce justice. As the Director of Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Institute, Ronald Sullivan points out, “Justice doesn’t happen. People make justice happen. Justice is not a thing that descends from above and makes everything right… justice is something that people of good will, make happen. Justice is a decision.” But tragically, there are too many who make a very different decision.

Private prisons have caused especially egregious damage. Insidiously, these businesses have inserted a profit-motive where one was never welcomed. It has provided a financial model for perpetuating both racism and classism. It has siphoned tax payer funds away from education and community development programs. The growth in for-profit prisons has brought along side it a rise in recidivism and a staggering increase in the total number of inmates, disproportionately higher than the actual crime rates. In fact, as prisons grow, overall the real rate of crime remains at historic lows. Sadly, the actions of that industry seem to have become all too normalized, and appallingly, it appears that many who benefit from those actions revel in the toxins poisoning our democratic integrity.

The financials behind private prisons are incredibly alarming, but sadly not what I would call the most repugnant evidence against them. It is still worth noting though that this industry has spent over $45 million in lobbying efforts. One of these for-profit prisons, The GEO Group, gave $100,000 to the Trump campaign through a SuperPAC and followed up with a $250,000 donation to his inauguration. Now perhaps that would be somewhat defensible if these organizations uncovered some remarkable strategy that deterred or prevented more Americans from going to prison. Perhaps their extreme influence in politics would be understandable if these businesses reduced recidivism, or at least provided some relief by way of operating prisons more effectively, or at a minimum, less expensively. More succinctly put, maybe it would not be so bad if these businesses got good results. However, none of these potential justifications could be farther from reality. The inmate population has soared. Hosting only 5% of the world’s population, we imprison about an entire quarter of the global inmate population. By far, the United States has the single highest rate of incarceration in the world. Over the past 40 years, correlating strongly with government reliance on private prisons, this rate has quintupled. In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander notes,

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“Prisons are big business and have become deeply entrenched in America’s economic and political system. Rich and powerful people, including former vice president Dick Cheney, have invested millions in private prisons. They are deeply interested in expanding the market- increasing the supply of prisoners- not eliminating the pool of people who can be held captive for a profit.”

Moreover, numerous studies have shown that private prison inmates have a higher likelihood of returning to jail once released, and as examples like Arizona’s private prisons show, tax-payers often have to front millions more toward these companies than they do toward state-run facilities. Bryan Stevenson touches on these costs as he writes in his book, Just Mercy,

“Spending on jails and prisons by state and federal governments has risen from $6.9 billion in 1980 to nearly $80 billion today. Private prison builders and prison service companies have spent millions of dollars to persuade state and local governments to create new crimes, impose harsher sentences, and keep more people locked up so that they can earn more profits. Private profit has corrupted incentives to improve public safety, reduce the cost of mass incarceration, and most significantly, promote rehabilitation of the incarcerated. State governments have been forced to shift funds from public services, education, health, and welfare to pay for incarceration, and they now face unprecedented economic crises as a result. The privatization of prison health care, prison commerce, and a range of services has made incarceration a money-making windfall for a few and a costly nightmare for the rest of us.”

The largest of America’s private prisons, CoreCivic (formerly known as CCA), seats none other than Thurgood Marshall’s son on the board of directors… a painful irony. The GEO Group and Avalon Correctional Services report their 2016 revenue at approximately $160 million and $1 billion respectively, trailing behind CoreCivic’s 2 billion-dollar income statement. That said, despite the compensation to private prison executives (up to almost $11 million), there is clear proof of bankruptcy; moral bankruptcy. These exorbitant gains off of the agony of our fellow Americans may be enough proof in and of itself, but I find it more explicitly outside of the profit and loss sheets. In fact, it is boldly advertised.

In researching these companies, the extraordinary cost to the public for the sake of greed was far from the most upsetting discovery. Rather, the real surprise came from the sales pitches to the investors. It is unthinkable to me that someone at each of those organizations had to have sat down and proudly promoted, in writing, the company’s sinister ideology. For me, that sparked a new kind of outrage. It’s one that arises from not only an inefficiency within our justice system, not only a complete unfairness, but a down-right insult. A swift slap in the face.

Dun & Bradstreet runs a database called Hoovers. D&B is a commercial data gatherer and Hoovers allows its users to look up profiles for over 235 million companies worldwide. Much like LinkedIn, there are both subscriber-only and free services. Using either, researchers can get a glimpse into what these three private prisons are like from a business perspective. My new indignation was born right from their company descriptions. These are the small paragraphs that try to encapsulate the missions, workings, and philosophies of each company. My disgust came from the very first sentences of all three [emphasis added]:

“CoreCivic has *locked up* a big share of the private prison market.”

“The GEO Group sticks to its *convictions*, and it relies on them to generate business.”

“Avalon Correctional Services benefits from its *captive* market.”

It is one thing to already have suffered such a moral malfunction as to maximize profits from enslaving millions of people. It is one thing to already have such a callous disregard for the seriousness of tearing away the freedom of human beings. But to make the conscious decision to mock those people… to present yourself by turning their suffering into a pun… is maliciousness that I simply cannot tolerate.

I assume that no matter what side of the political spectrum you may fall on, we can agree that policy should be designed in the best interest of our country. I am sure that most civil-minded Americans, liberal or conservative, can agree that we are at our best when unemployment is low, voter turnout is high, education is accessible, housing is affordable, and dignity is respected. We will probably have different ideas on how to accomplish all of that, but one thing is clear: private prisons have actively pushed us farther away from those goals. Convicted felons, of whom private prisons have worked relentlessly to create more of, are often unable to find jobs, stripped away of their right to vote, and can be legally denied loans for both education and housing. We are a country that was crafted with the purpose of giving power to the people. Allowing that power to be stolen from even one of us, must be met with intense scrutiny. The unbelievable frequency in which private prisons have unjustly facilitated this theft of power from millions of us, should be met with absolute ignominy.

It is long overdue to demand more out of the industry that calls itself, “corrections.”