Prisons for fun and profit

Investopedia defines privatization as “The transfer of ownership of ... businesses from a government to a privately owned entity.” The argument for privatization says “... the estimated increases in efficiency that can result from private ownership … come from the greater importance private owners tend to place on profit maximization as compared to government, which tends to be less concerned about profits.” Therein lies the problem.

Our Constitution says government exists to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty ...” There shouldn’t be “profit” in establishing justice, or providing for the common defense, or securing the blessings of liberty. But today, too many conservatives think if something isn’t profitable, it isn’t worthwhile.

During the Iraq War, private military contractors performed many duties formerly done by the military. One contractor, Kellogg, Brown, and Root, installed electrical wiring in military quarters. James Childs, a master electrician who reviewed some of this work, called it the “most hazardous, worst quality work” he’d ever seen. This wiring ultimately electrocuted at least 18 soldiers. KBR’s punishment for killing our soldiers? Bonuses of $80 million. KBR’s own database listed 231 electric shock incidents. If these facilities had been built by the military, there would have been more accountability. Under privatization, not gonna happen.

Halliburton was contracted to provide food and water, which was putrid and contaminated and made our troops sick. Halliburton got paid anyway. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said that when he served in the military in World War II, such profiteering would have been considered treasonous. Viva la privatization!

One of the best, and worst, examples of privatization is the ever-expanding for-profit prison system. How can prisons be for-profit? Easy. Just get the taxpayers to pay for every prisoner you house, then obtain as many prisoners as you can, however you can.

Two private prison corporations, GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, played a big part in drafting Arizona’s S.B. 1070, the “Papers please” law. Their goal? The more people arrested, the higher the population in the private prisons. The average time of detention is 443 days per prisoner, at a cost of $62,463; 70 percent of that taxpayer money goes to the owners of the detention facilities. The more detainees, the more money in the owners’ pockets.

In Mississippi, the GEO Group owned and operated the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility built for youth ages 13-17. Since there weren’t enough youthful offenders of this age to make the facility profitable, the age limit was raised to 22. Not only was this age mix detrimental, a shortage of guards made oversight difficult. A normal guard to prisoner ratio is one to 10 or 12. At Walnut Grove, it was one guard to 60 inmates. Fewer guards, more profit.

Prison personnel used the inmates for sex; the warden even took one inmate to a motel. Inmate gang fights were promoted for entertainment. The U.S. Department of Justice found that prison personnel employed “systemic, egregious and dangerous practices.” How did this facility get away with this? Private prisons don’t have to follow the same rules for public access and record-keeping. A private juvenile correctional facility became a brothel and fight club, paid for by taxpayer dollars.

In Pennsylvania, a company called PA Child Care ran two youth detention centers. Suspicious sentencing procedures led to an investigation. One judge, Michael Conahan, secured contracts with the centers. Judge Mark Ciavarella then handed down extreme sentences, keeping the centers filled. In return, the judges received over $2.6 million in kickbacks. Another judge said, “In my entire career, I’ve never heard of anything remotely approaching this.” But hey, they made a profit.

Here is the money quote from the GEO Group’s 2010 Annual Report to the SEC:

“(A)ny changes with respect to the decriminalization of drugs and controlled substances could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, sentenced and incarcerated, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. Similarly, reductions in crime rates could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities. Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.”

So, reducing crime and passing immigration reform will adversely impact the profits for these companies. Do we want our tax dollars going to companies who have a vested interest in promoting crime and illegal immigration? Because with privatization, that is exactly what we are paying for.

Jeanette Strong’s column appears every other Wednesday.


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