By Jeffrey Deskovic
“Looking back” will feature reprints of articles that Jeff previously wrote while a columnist at The Westchester Guardian, which encompass topics that are applicable here in CA as well as across the country and not simply applicable to NY.
Prison populations have swollen as government tries to arrest its way out of our national drug problem, and criteria to grant parole have become more restrictive. In the past two decades, New York and other states spent large sums of taxpayer dollars building new prisons, hiring staff, and incarcerating prisoners. Building ever more prison cells is a zero sum game: every dollar the state spends on incarceration is one less dollar available to spend on educational and social programs, and treatment for those suffering from drug addiction or mental health problems which afflict the majority of prisoners.
Skyrocketing prison costs have spurred elected officials across the country to entertain new methods to trim the incarceration budget. The obvious solutions are not employed. These include incarcerating only dangerous offenders; paroling addicts to drug rehabilitation facilities or programs; paroling mentally ill prisoners to hospitals or other monitored treatment programs; and paroling offenders who can safely be released, such as those who, by reason of advanced age and/or debilitated medical condition, are no longer a threat to society. This would dramatically reduce the prison population and make it possible to close unneeded prisons, saving taxpayers millions.
Parole should be reformed. Today, the de facto practice is to deny parole to fully rehabilitated prisoners due to the “nature of the crime.” This makes no sense. The crime is known on day one when the prisoner is incarcerated. That fact will not change. If prisoners sentenced to long stretches for serious crimes believe they have little prospect of ever being paroled, then they have no incentive to undertake educational, vocational, and therapeutic programs to improve themselves while they are locked up. Why work hard to become a better man if you are never going to be released anyway? Parole should be unhinged from penal politics, and prisoners who clearly demonstrate they can remain at liberty without breaking the law should be released on parole.
Although all these solutions make good sense, they are rarely implemented for fear of public backlash. In other words, politics trumps sound policy. As a result, some states turned to the quick fix of prison privatization: hiring private companies to build and operate prisons. It is a bad idea.
First, there is the moral problem. Making money off prisons and prisoners is unseemly. It is beneath the dignity of a state. Incarceration is a necessary evil to punish lawbreakers and protect society; it is not a business. It should not be done for profit. Prisoners suffer from dehumanization. In a privately-run prison system, they become debased completely, turned into objects, mere commodities to be used to make money.
Second, privatization creates a conflict of interest. To turn a profit, businesses seek to control costs and maximize revenues. Hence, it is not difficult to envision that prison managers will trim the costs of running prisons at the expense of the inmates. Medical care and rehabilitation programs will be limited; food quality will be poor; prisons overcrowded. These things are already a problem in many prisons. Adding the profit motive to the mix only makes these conditions worse.
Third, unless restricted by new laws, private prison guards can go on strike or even walk out of a prison. This is not permitted for correctional officers who are public employees. Strikes and walk-outs could lead to dangerous situations. This has happened in a few privately-run prisons already.
Fourth, the quality of staff cannot be assured. Private companies will seek cheap labor and hire guards and other staff who could not make the cut in a state-run facility. Unfortunately, abusive guards are not uncommon in public prisons. Imagine how much worse the problem would be in the private prisons where guards are not restrained by the disciplinary mechanisms that govern and restrict public employees.
Fifth, the frequency of escapes is much higher at private prisons than state-run facilities. This poses a direct threat to society.
Sixth, oversight has proven vital in the management of state-run facilities. It serves as a check on prison officials, and provides policy makers and legislators critical information they need about prison conditions. Effective oversight of private industry is harder to achieve than oversight of state-run entities. The ability of state inspectors to do site inspections is more limited in the private sector.
Seven, private companies elevate their profits by ensuring the maximum possible number of beds are occupied, and conversely, lose money if too many beds lie fallow and unused. Thus, private prisons, like hotels, have an incentive to make deals with other private prisons around the country to keep their occupancy rates high and transfer prisoners to maximize the marginal value of each prison bed. Overcrowded prisons will “sell” their inventory of prisoners to underused facilities.
I know from experience—being incarcerated is hell itself. Ties to the outside world are critical to maintaining one’s sanity. Moving prisoners to distant and unfamiliar states is terribly disorienting. It greatly reduces visits from family and friends, or eliminates such visits altogether. Ties to loved ones have great rehabilitative value. Society has a stake in maintaining prisoners’ ties to those close to them. Society is negatively impacted when less rehabilitated prisoners are released. Lower rehabilitation increases the likelihood of recidivism—in blunt terms, it increases the likelihood the prisoner cut off from family and friends will commit more crimes once he is freed.
Finally, new laws should be passed to prevent wrongful convictions so public funds are not wasted incarcerating innocent people. For all these reasons, prison privatization is a bad idea. I am glad it never gained traction in New York. It should be rolled back in states which resorted to it.
Jeffrey Deskovic, Esq, MA, is an internationally recognized wrongful conviction expert and founder of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which has freed 9 wrongfully convicted people and helped pass 3 laws aimed at preventing wrongful conviction. Jeff is an advisory board member of It Could Happen To You, which has chapters in CA, NY, and PA. He serves on the Global Advisory Council for Restorative Justice International, and is a sometimes co-host and co-producer of the show, “360 Degrees of Success.” Jeff was exonerated after 16 years in prison-from age 17-32- before DNA exonerated him and identified the actual perpetrator. A short documentary about his life is entitled “Conviction“, and episode 1 of his story in Virtual Reality is called, “Once Upon A Time In Peekskill“. Jeff has a Masters Degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with his thesis written on wrongful conviction causes and reforms needed to address them, and a law degree from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. Jeff is now a practicing attorney.