Ending For-Profit Prisons

prison-barsBy Carl Takei

On Thursday the U.S. Department of Justice inspector general released a scathing report on the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ monitoring of “contract prisons,” a shadow network of private, for-profit prisons that hold about 11 percent of the nation’s 193,000 federal prisoners.

Though presented in a bureaucratic, flat style, the inspector general’s findings are damning and outrageous. Sentence by sentence, the report shows how the bureau fails to impose basic standards of health, safety, and human decency on the private companies it pays to run these prisons. In one example, the inspector general recounts how a prisoner who told medical staff that he was having trouble breathing was refused immediate care and told to fill out a written request for an appointment. Untreated, he died. Afterward, the Bureau of Prisons conducted a mortality review that criticized this denial of care but did not propose any specific corrective action. As a result, the inspector general writes, “contractor deficiencies went uncorrected and corrective actions were delayed . . . putting other inmates at risk.”

“[A]t risk” — such a mild way of saying, “in danger of dying from causes that are easily treated.” Prisoners in these for-profit prisons have died from untreated HIV, untreated cancer, suicide, and heart attacks and seizures where officials delayed transfer to a hospital.

The inspector general’s report recounts a litany of such potentially deadly “deficiencies” ranging from medical care, to violence, to the misuse of solitary confinement cells as overflow housing. The profit motive is an unstated but ever-present connecting thread. Using solitary confinement cells as overflow space, for example, was something that private prison wardens conceded was “not a good correctional practice,” but which they engaged in because the company’s contract with the bureau encouraged them to continue accepting new prisoners regardless of whether they had the space to house them humanely. Similarly, medical understaffing — such as one prison’s decision to go without a full-time physician for eight months — seems to persist because it is cheaper for the private prison company to pay penalties for understaffing than to provide adequate medical staff.

The inspector general also reports that the private prisons experience nine times as many lockdowns as bureau-run prisons and significantly higher levels of violence than bureau-run prisons. When given a chance to respond to these findings, the private prison companies insisted that the security issues resulted from the bureau’s decision to concentrate a predominantly Mexican population in these private prisons.

But this is a red herring.

At least two previous studies have concluded that, nationwide, private prisons tend to have higher levels of violence than comparable public prisons — even those that don’t hold many Mexicans. Indeed, the prisons examined by the inspector general’s report ought to be easier — not harder — for the companies to manage than the average federal prison. Dubbed “Criminal Alien Requirement” or CAR prisons, they hold non-U.S. citizens who are overwhelmingly serving sentences either for non-violent drug offenses or for reentering the country after deportation and whom the bureau has classified as low security risks.

To prevent these abuses, the inspector general issued a series of recommendations to the bureau to develop better monitoring of its private prison contractors and to convene an internal working group to examine why the private prisons perform worse than their publicly run counterparts. The bureau did not object to the recommendations; they are both sensible and necessary steps, if one assumes that the bureau will continue to rely on private prisons. However, they avoid confronting the larger question of whether it makes sense to continue the federal government’s multi-decade experiment with prison privatization.

Even public prisons are secretive, unaccountable institutions that tend to resist reform. Citizen observation and activism (exemplified by the use of cell phone videos to build momentum for police reform) are next to impossible in a place whose very purpose is to assert total state control over the bodies of the people inside it. But when a for-profit company takes over the institution, this inherently closed nature shields the activities of an entity whose primary duty is to deliver value to its shareholders. The conflict between that profit motive and the legitimate goals of government forces a constant arms race between the contractors (who must seek new, creative ways to maximize their profits) and their government overseers (who must ensure the government is actually getting what it paid for). The inspector general’s recommendations are the latest step in that arms race.

But this is a wholly unnecessary arms race, because there is nothing inevitable about the decision to hand control of prisons over to for-profit companies. The Corrections Corporation of America only created the modern idea of a private prison in 1983, when its founders used their political connections to secure a contract with federal officials and hastily converted a Houston motel into an immigration detention center.

Today’s federal officials should reconsider their reliance on this inherently problematic industry. Indeed, earlier this year, the bipartisan Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections specifically contemplated that federal sentencing reform efforts would enable the bureau to begin cancelling its private prison contracts. The inspector general’s findings, along with other recent reports and exposes, should spur officials to cancel these contracts rather than accept the human and fiscal costs of this continued arms race.

Carl Takei is with the ACLU National Prison Project

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Marina Kalugin

    And, I understand that the same company that runs most of those awful prisons also runs the chain of halfway houses, which are actually even worse than the prisons….if one can believe that….I have heard that from 3 friends who had the misfortunate of getting to know both in recent months/years…

    in this area of CA actually…at least the halfway houses are…and so are some jails…which are generally regarded as worse also…wow…I had no idea…

  2. Sam

    Yes, we need to get rid of any lower cost alternatives so that we can pay prison workers a living wage like we do in California:

    Patrick Barber-$793,626.66 Parole Agent I Youth Authority

    Michelle C Cunningham-$610,621.97 Correctional Lieutenant

    Katherine G Hemela-$551,135.40 Staff Psychiatrist

    Amad Haggag- $550,865.30 Staff Psychiatrist

    Shailesh Gandhi-$543,075.86 Staff Psychiatrist

    Mohammad Safi-$541,847.29 Staff Psychiatrist

    Plus 8 more making more than $500,000 per year.

    And if you try new ideas to lower costs then how are people going to live in retirement? Like Correctional Officer Kathleen Davis who only gets $294,268 per year for the rest of her life after 14 years on the job.

    Sure that money would be better spent on things like roads or even lowering current taxes and fees to spur local investment, grow jobs and lower the high cost of living in California. But if we do that how are these individuals going to afford that third summer home? You realize they don’t give out hot towels in first class, right?

    The Federal government and other states need to take California’s lead on this and change nothing, spend more money than it is taking in and when you run out of money blame the rich or someone else.



    1. Delia .

      Sam, what is your salary? Kinda reminds me of folks outing others, yet fail to disclose their own skeletons.

      Perhaps some of these folks are veterans or long time prison ee’s. I wouldn’t want to judge.
      There are also ee’s with legit workers’ comp injuries.

    2. tribeUSA

      Sam–good post, I wasn’t aware of such outrageous salaries. Yes, the taxpayers wonder where their money is going–these salaries should be widely publicized, I’m sure there would be public pressure for cost-cutting. Reasonable salaries for these jobs seem to me to be about 30-50% of those quoted; imagine if the money saved by decreasing salaries could be put into better job training and rehabilitation programs instead (and into inner city youth programs to provide alternative views and experiences to those of gang life).

  3. Tia Will

    Yes, we need to get rid of any lower cost alternatives so that we can pay prison workers a living wage like we do in California:”

    I believe that it is possible to have “lower cost alternatives” that do not leave prisoners at risk of death from common treatable conditions without supporting the egregious salaries and benefits available because of an artificially created and maintained lack of certain specialties such as psychiatrists.

    A few alternatives that come readily to mind :

    1) offer in-prison work for a limited period of time as a means of educational loan repayment for specialists who are in short supply just as we do for the Public Health and Indian Health Services.

    2) Reduce the number of prisoners by shortening sentences for those not involved in violent crimes and those no longer a threat to the public. End the false pretense that long sentences will prevent crime by causing potential criminals to “think long and hard about their action” before they commit a crime.

    3) Increase the number of those whose penalties do not include prison time, but rather some other form of societal repayment.

    4) Stop using our prisons as containment areas for the mentally ill. Yes, I am aware that this would meant that we would have to have a major societal change from a desire for retribution to an emphasis on public safety and individual treatment and rehabilitation.

  4. Delia .

    A homeless, mentally ill woman was placed in county in AZ for shoplifting a candy bar. She did not appear in court at the assigned date and time, so she got thrown in a cage.
    That scenario should worry readers every bit as much as salaries that are high.
    Perhaps the commentor should read Les Mis, or re-read it.

  5. Marina Kalugin

    heck those folks are making way more than the Chancellor at a major university …and, it is a travesty that more is spent these days on locking people up rather than investing in prevention early on…

    truly backwards priorities

    prison unions are generally quite pushy and good at getting their way I’ve heard,  and I understand many an official feels beholden after a while

    btw.. All state employee salaries are posted on websites for all to see…it is “public” info now.

    And, the real issue is that this country right now is more a industrial/military/prison complex run….and the “private” prisons feed right into that mentality

    if you and your family have been fortunate to not be in the wrong place at the wrong time consider yourself fortunate for the moment and this may all may become much more real to you in just a split second sometimes…as time marches on…  have a good day.

    1. hpierce

      You are absolutely right about public employees’ salaries and pensions being available on the “net”…

      Have seen yours… impressive… you should feel very secure as you retire…

      And, the “trolls” fish that pond of info for unsolicited calls, fraudulent “offers”, and other scams… thank God for transparency… we should insist on that for everyone, public or ‘private’…

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