Privatization of Prisons is NOT the solution

Alabama has a long history of health and safety and abusive issues within its prison complexes.  Julia Tutwiler prison, an all women prison, made national news this past year with federal findings of sexual abuse committed by one third of the employees there.  The over crowding of the prisons in the state of Alabama  is at 190% of design capacity.  Over crowding in any institution is a powder keg for trouble.  There is a trend in Alabama for prisoners to serve longer terms.  Prisoners served an average of 30 month sentences in 2009 and are now serving an average of 43 months in 2014 before being paroled.  Alabama has the 3rd highest incarceration rate and the 8th highest crime rate as of 2012.  Yes, there are major problems within the Alabama prison system.

The mass overcrowding is placing Alabama at risk to have the Federal Government mandate a release of prisoners to bring the prison population to 130% of design capacity.  Anyone who has lived in Alabama for any length of time knows how averse Alabama legislature is to Federal interventions of any kind.

A recent gathering took place in Huntsville, AL to discuss the issues of necessary reforms.  It was the second of four state wide forums conducted by David Mathews Center for Civic Life and the Alabama Media Group.  One of the attendees, John Zierdt, Jr, is listed in the write up about this forum as an “advocate for privatization and suggested the state examine how similar arrangements, specifically with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), are working in neighboring states.” 

He went on to state, ” ‘I think they [CCA] offer a very good solution,’ Zierdt said. ‘It’s a good solution for us because you don’t have to do capital expenditures. It’s something I think really needs to be looked at.’  Zierdt said that with privatization there is the possibility to temporarily move inmates to other states where space is available. ‘You can pay now or you’re going to pay later,” he said. “You’re going to play [sic] later when the fed takes over because you’ll still get CCA.’ “

I do not know if this John Zierdt, Jr is the same John Zierdt, Jr who was the President/CEO of Transcor America, Inc.; a subsidiary of Corrections Corporation of America. If it is the same person, then his overwhelming positive endorsement of proposing Corrections Corporation of America as a solution is a conflict of interest as such a venture would overwhelmingly benefit his personal interests.  His threat that CCA will be in Alabama either by choice or by Federal force is an intimidation stance that should not be tolerated by Alabama citizens.

There are serious concerns that suggest privatization, specifically CCA, does not serve the best interests of Alabama. According to Sourcewatch, Corrections Corporation of America ” has been strongly criticized for many aspects of its operations, which amount to two primary critiques: (1) CCA’s lobbying and campaign donations have led to federal and state policies and government contracts that fatten its bottom line, often at the expense of the public interest; (2) CCA’s profit-increasing strategies constitute a vicious cycle where lower wages and benefits for workers, high employee turnover, insufficient training, and chronic understaffing can lead to mistreatment of inmates, increased violence, security concerns, and riots. As discussed below, profit-focused measures that affect inmates, such as withholding medical care or inadequate nutrition, add to the volatility of the situation. This, in turn, has led to dangerous working conditions for correctional staff. CCA’s history also includes allegations of falsifying records, fraudulently billing Medicaid, violating labor laws, and all around ‘cutting-corners. ‘”

Based on this report by Sourcewatch and the long list of lawsuits lobbied against CCA and their subsidiaries, privatization is not going to resolve the horrendous inhumane treatment of incarcerated people in Alabama.  In fact, if CCAs track record continues the atrocities may even grow instead of lessen. A majority of federal and state contracts required a quota of beds filled and payment, a sort of ‘low-crime tax’, if beds were not filled .  Sourcewatch states such contracts place taxpayers ‘on the hook’ for ensuring private prisons profit.

For the moment, let’s take CCA out of the equation here.  What does privatization of the prison system mean?  It places a capitalist model unto a human service venue.   Humans become the product which is immoral on so many levels.  The number one goal is profit for shareholders.   Just as hotels need a certain percent of occupancy to stay profitable, so do prisons.  What is the difference between prisons and hotels?  Humans are not the product in the hospitality industry.  The product in hospitality is the amenities offered by staying in one hotel over another hotel.  Prison is not a hotel, it does not provide amenities to make one’s stay pleasant.  Prison is meant to be punishment for breaking laws.  The problem is that private prisons have ensured that there are increasing numbers of people breaking the law and therefore staying in their prisons.

The private prison industry has spent over 20 million dollars between 1999-2009 lobbying the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Prisons, Office of Management and Budget, and ICE in attempts to influence immigration policy.  A strong draconian anti-immigrant policy translates into profits for private prisons at taxpayers expense. The average bed costs $122 per night, multiply that times the 2 million undocumented immigrants that have passed through detention centers in Obama’s administration alone and you come up with a pretty expensive night’s stay at taxpayers expense.  The private prison industry translates people into cattle.  A fairly immoral and repugnant view of humanity.

Private prisons historically pay lower wages than public prisons.  This is part of the capitalist model.  The belief that private prisons would be good for the economy is a falsehood.  Remember the goal is profit for shareholders and investors.  The average wage for a private prison employee is $8.25 an hour versus Alabama’s public prison employee average wage between $12.55 – 18.02 an hour, depending on region.  It has been established that in order to afford a two bedroom apartment, one must earn $13.34 an hour in Alabama.  Lower wages means less ability to purchase goods which results in a depressed economy.

The comparison of privatizing prisons to the privatization of nursing homes, group homes for the disabled, hospices does not equate.  There has been the argument that these for-profit institutions that house people have done well and in many instances better than government run or non-profit entities therefore  for-profit prisons will also do well is false for this one reason.  These for-profit institutions are geared towards the well-being and comfort of the people they serve.  The people who access them pay for them privately through their own funds or insurance.  The people who access them if they are dissatisfied with the service given to them or their loved ones can and will remove themselves from the institution. Not so in a prison setting.

A prisoner has little recourse when receiving maltreatment.  There is the human tendency to believe that the incarcerated deserve what they get in prison. Whether it is abuse from other inmates or correctional officers, that is all part of the ‘they deserve what they get.’    Private prisons look to cut costs, so fair treatment–adequate nutrition, sufficient medical care–is a cost factor that shareholders cannot tolerate.  But the prisoners, especially in private prisons, are heavily restricted in their ability to sue for better conditions because of the Prison Litigation Reform Act.  When an inmate is able to sue, the result tends to be a settled case with no ramification on correcting the prison system itself.

Returning to CCA as the solution to Alabama’s broken Prison system.  Sourcewatch lists six legal cases that allege CCA was negligent in their handling of violence, treatment, and resultant death of inmates and officers.  CCA settled the lawsuits.  One case– CCA’s run Idaho Correctional Center had four times the level of violence between inmates of any other Idaho prison. The suit alleged that CCA employees were complicit in the prisoner on prisoner assaults.  The prison earned the infamous name of Gladiator School.  The findings were so egregious that Idaho cancelled their contract with CCA in 2013.

There were six cases listed at the Sourcewatch site of sexual assault.  One case was at the CCA-owned Otter Creek Correctional Center in Kentucky.  The prison was originally a mens prison but CCA threatened to close it because of empty beds (remember profit is the ultimate goal here not rehabilitation of inmates.) The facility therefore became a women’s prison in 2005 but retained the staffing ratio originally used at the mens prison of 81% male and 19% female employees.  In 2010, six correctional officers, including a chaplain, were charged with sexually assaulting 16 women inmates. The facility also housed 168 women from Hawaii sent there in attempts to save Hawaii money.  Hawaii brought their female inmates back into their prisons as a measure of protection. The prison was closed in 2013.

There were three cases of wrongful death listed at the Sourcewatch site.  One case was the death of an inmate at the CCA-run Kit Carson Correctional Center in Colorado just days before he was scheduled to be released who required a medication to treat a hereditary ailment that cause his breathing passages to swell shut. The medicine was only available in 30 day dosages for a cost of $35.  The CCA medical staff did not want to spend that amount when he was being released in a few days.  [remember profits before people.] He attempted to call for help but the case alleges staff had the practice of turning on the intercom in a vacant cell blocking other calls so as not to be disturbed by the inmates. The case was settled out of court in 2004.

These fifteen cases mentioned at Sourcewatch are only samples of the dozens of lawsuits against CCA and its subsidiaries.  There are many, many others reported by other watch groups such as Grassroots Leadership, and Private Corrections Working Group. All of these lawsuits reveal a consistent pattern of negligence and abuse of inmates across not only CCA but across the private prison industry, which leads to the only conclusion that CCA and other private for profit prisons are not intending to serve the best interests of any citizen except the lining of their own pockets.

So turning to privatization is not the solution to Alabama’s prison woes.  In all likelihood, lawsuits of sexual assault, wrongful death, medical negligence, and instigated violence will continue to plague Alabama’s prisons even after privatization.  The only difference is the State of Alabama can wash their hands of any accountability for these egregious acts within our prisons.

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