Private prisons are freaky

There are a whole lot of things wrong with the private prison industry, but nothing is freakier than the most basic quality of the business: private prisons make the incarceration of human beings into a for-profit enterprise. This gives me the willies.

I recently read the new report from the Sentencing Project on private prisons; it’s great, and you all should read it, too. If you do, you’ll see that private prisons have more problems with violence, sexual assault, health hazards, mental health hazards, etc. than public facilities do. This is perhaps due to the fact that their employees are trained less well and paid less well than employees of public facilities, so they’re less well qualified, less well prepared, less happy, and less likely to stick around for awhile. I’m not real pleased about any of that. The report also emphasizes that, contrary to popular belief, it’s not clear that we’re really saving any money with private prisons, and certainly not enough to justify all the problems they present.

But one part of the report that leapt out at me like a jungle cat was the section on political lobbying. Good lord. Lobbying is weird enough already, but it becomes a lot weirder when you let people make a buck on incarceration. Now companies have a vested interest in putting more folks in prison and detention, and they can back up that interest with hundreds of thousands of dollars to politicians. No longer are people driven to lock their fellow human beings away simply because they think they’re going to break into their homes and carry off everything they hold dear.* Now they stand to see their stock portfolios improve as well. 

On the other hand, public facilities are full of things from private corporations; everything from prison uniforms to phone services come from private companies. There are also private companies that utilize prison labor, exploiting people in prison and taking jobs away from workers who aren’t incarcerated. (See a great article about this from The Nation here.) That said, corporations like the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group (formerly known as Wackenhut) are especially big stake holders here since their businesses completely rely on incarceration. Woof.

And of course we shouldn’t forget that private prisons have a whole bunch of downsides for the people who actually have to spend time locked up in them. I worked for awhile at a transitional housing facility for people getting out of prison and jail in Vermont. Vermont is a small state and a pretty wealthy one, and they don’t have a ton of good throw-away space for prisons. So about a third of the people who get sentenced to prison sentences in Vermont have to go to private facilities in Kentucky.

One guy I spoke with told me about his experience with private prisons. On the bright side, he said, guards didn’t give a hoot about their jobs, so they were much more likely to smuggle in drugs for the inmates (whoopee). On the down side, he described a pretty horrific twelve-hour ride on a school bus from Vermont to Kentucky during which time the inmates were allowed to use the bathroom once, in another prison at a midway point. They were shackled for the drive with those nifty things that connect hands to ankles through a ring at their waistline, which was adjusted to such a length that they couldn’t sit up straight. I bet that was fun. And best of all, most of the incarcerated men at his prison never received a single visit from a family member. It stands to reason, really, because folks in prison aren’t known for their wealthy families, and traveling from Vermont to Kentucky doesn’t come cheap. I would guess it’s even tougher for the folks from Hawaii who get sent to Kentucky, too.

This is why I get all bent out of shape about private prisons.

*Just thought I ought to clarify that I don’t really think that’s a realistic possibility OR the real reason most people support increasingly punitive policies. But it is what we say, mostly, as a country, and it stands in sharp contrast to the motives of prison entrepreneurs.


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