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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Privatized prisons indicate corrupt system

With 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, but only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has the highest level of incarceration in the world. About one out of every 100 Americans are currently in prison; for African Americans that number is one in 15. Incarceration rates have been increasing in this country partly due to “tough on crime” politics, immigration laws that require lengthy detention, and drug laws that disproportionately incarcerate people of color and the poor for non-violent crimes.

Part of this push toward incarceration has been driven by the private prison industry. Accountable for 6 percent of state prisoners, 16 percent of federal prisoners and nearly half of immigration detainees, the private prison industry rakes in billions of dollars each year. The huge piles of taxpayer dollars being forked over to these corporations support multimillion-dollar salaries for top executives, as well as a massive lobbying effort.

The industry’s two largest companies, the GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America, have spent a combined $25 million on lobbying efforts since 1989 and donated $10 million to political candidates. These lobbyists try to secure more contracts for their company, but also lobby for laws that have a profound impact on our country.

Private prisons have a naturally skewed incentive structure: higher incarceration rates, longer sentences and lower standards mean higher profits. Unsurprisingly, the private prisons industry has directed much of their lobbying efforts to harsher sentencing laws, reduced parole time, drug criminalization, longer immigration detention and increased border patrol funding.

In addition to lobbying, the private prison industry relies on its ties to organizations such as the Koch brother’s American Legislative Exchange Council. A right-wing policy center, ALEC brings together state legislatures and large corporations to create new legislation. At ALEC’s lavish, corporate-funded retreats, corporate members have the opportunity to literally write laws in their interests and hand them over to lawmakers to introduce in their states.

These laws, called “model bills,” often appear in statehouses in the same word-for-word form they were introduced at ALEC meetings. Many laws linked to ALEC directly benefit the private prison industry, such as “three strikes” laws, “truth in sentencing,” and Arizona’s infamous SB 1070 law, which used racial profiling to increase the number of undocumented immigrants in detention centers.

Private prisons don’t only use legal means of bribery, such as campaign contributions or lobbying efforts; they also use plain old bribery. In Pennsylvania, two judges were found guilty of accepting $2.6 million for sending children to a private juvenile detention center for minor offenses, like stealing a DVD from Walmart or making fun of a school principal on Myspace. A Mississippi Department of Correction official was found guilty of accepting over $700,000 in bribes in exchange for lucrative contracts to private companies. With these large corporations operating across the country, the problem is likely bigger than we know.

Private prisons have received increased attention in Arizona since violent riots broke out at a privately run facility in Kingman. The riots, which lasted several days, resulted in numerous injuries, and rendered the facility “uninhabitable,” prompting the costly transfer of over 1,000 inmates. This isn’t the first major crisis to happen at this prison or it’s parent company, Management & Training Corporation.

In 2010, three inmates escaped from the Kingman facility after guards chose to ignore an alarm indicating that someone had cut through the fence. By the time they were captured, one of them had already murdered a couple in New Mexico. Earlier this year, an Arizona couple announced they were suing the company and the state for $7.5 million after poor oversight resulted in their 23-year-old son being murdered in the prison.

These events are not surprising given the industry’s financial incentive structure. To save money, private corporations prefer to hire inexperienced guards at low wages. The guard overseeing the unit where the 23-year-old inmate was murdered was responsible for 200 inmates during his 16-hour shift.

Private prisons also skimp on services and facilities. At an MTC prison in Texas, a ceiling collapsed on dozens of inmates, leaving some of them in critical condition. Numerous private facilities around the country have been found to have substandard-to-non-existent medical care, abusive treatment, rampant sexual assault, vermin infestations and filthy living conditions.

Despite their terrible record in Arizona and elsewhere, private prisons are deeply entrenched in the state. After a state study found that private prisons were not more cost effective than public ones, the legislature decided to get rid of the law that required a price comparison. Former governor Jan Brewer received thousands in donations from private prisons to her campaigns and legislative efforts. Many of her top officials were former private prison lobbyists. Governor Doug Ducey, who has received at least $10,000 from private prison interests, has called for a full investigation into the Kingman riots. I wonder how rigorous it will be.

It is time for elected officials in Arizona and elsewhere to be honest about private prisons. Not only are they not cost effective—their main selling point—but they are often poorly run, abusive, insecure, and they bypass democracy. There are many situations where private companies can perform useful services to the public, such as public transportation, parking enforcement and public utilities, but with such a skewed incentive structure, private prisons are a terrible idea.

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