Monday, December 15, 2003

The Truth About Private Prisons

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation's largest operator of prisons for profit, is celebrating its 20th anniversary throughout this year "at both the company's corporate Nashville office and at all of the more than 60 prisons, jails and detention centers under CCA ownership and/or management."

No word on whether the prisoners will be celebrating with them. However, a new report from Grassroots Leadership sticks a pin in their birthday balloon with a very critical look at the company's management of both its financial affairs and its contract prisons.

It is no secret that CCA has had its financial problems over the years. It came close to insolvency in the late 1990s after it accumulated heavy debt building expensive speculative prisons and restructuring itself as a real estate investment trust.

After restructuring again, shaking up its upper management and spending $120 million to settle investor lawsuits, the company now claims to be in better financial shape.

The report concedes that there has been some improvement but remains unconvinced about the company's long-term viability especially as many states are trying to reduce the size of their prison populations.

For those who are more concerned about the public policy implications of the CCA story than the ups and downs of its investors, the company's failures as a prison operator and its successes in influencing penal policy at the state and federal level are the most worrying areas of the report.For-profit prison companies like CCA have always presented themselves as both cheaper and better than the traditional publicly owned prisons, staffed by state employees.

However, from the mayhem and murders at the prison in Youngstown, Ohio, which eventually led to the company paying $1.6 million to prisoners to settle a lawsuit, to a series of wrongful death civil suits, and numerous disturbances and escapes, the authors document in detail a staggering range of failures of prison management.

Failure to provide adequate medical care to prisoners; Failure to control violence in its prisons; Substandard conditions that have resulted in prisoner protests and uprisings; Criminal activity on the part of some CCA employees, including the sale of illegal drugs to prisoners; and Escapes, which in the case of at least two facilities include inadvertent releases of prisoners who were supposed to remain in custody.

Many of the company's problems are blamed on its labor policies. Because prisons are very labor intensive institutions, the only way a company like CCA can sell itself to government as a cheaper option than public prisons while still making a profit, is by using as few staff as possible, paying them as little as possible, and not spending much on training. From the beginning, CCA has sought to depress its labor costs by keeping wages low and by denying its employees traditional (defined-benefit) pension plans. One predictable result of these policies had been understaffing and high rates of turnover at some of its facilities.

For example, annual turnover rates at several CCA facilities in Tennessee have been more than 60 percent. Another, equally predictable, has been the opposition of public service unions to the spread of prison privatization. Criminal justice reformers, trying to reduce the use of incarceration in the U.S., don't normally find themselves allying with prison guard unions but in this fight they are all on the same side.

Despite this opposition, CCA has been quite successful in recent years in influencing the public debate and winning the support of legislators. Of course, it is not hard to win legislators when you back up your arguments with hard cash. The company spends hundreds of thousands of dollars during each state election cycle to try to gain access and build support for its projects. At the federal level, CCA has given more than $100,000 in soft money to the Republican Party since 1997 as well as political action committee contributions to individual members of key Congressional committees.

The presence of J. Michael Quinlan, the former head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, among CCA's senior executives has surely helped the growth in its contracts with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the expectation of further expansion as more prisons for immigrants are planned. In its home state of Tennessee, CCA has enjoyed close relationships with many powerful public figures, including governors. And the for-profit prison companies have their own trade association lobbying for them on Capital Hill - the Association of Private Correctional and Treatment Organizations (APCTO).

While all of that might be dismissed as no more than the typical business-building efforts of any company looking to make a profit for its shareholders, there are other more troubling aspects to CCA's behavior. One has been its use of research from dubious sources to push its claims of superiority and cost-savings for the private sector.

Much of it is produced by researchers who are either funded by the industry or are ideologically predisposed in favor of privatization. For example, Charles Thomas, director of the supposedly neutral Private Prison Project of the University of Florida who was widely quoted as an expert on prison privatization throughout the 90s,served on the board of CCA and received several millions of dollars in consulting fees from them.

More recently, a study published in the Harvard Law Review was touted as an independent academic study of privatization. None of its boosters, however, mentioned that the author, in addition to being a graduate student at Harvard, is associated with the Reason Public Policy Institute, a division of the Reason Foundation whose purpose is to promote the privatization of public services. Perhaps most controversial is CCA's close ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

ALEC is a powerful force in the promotion of the conservative policy agenda among state legislators. One of its major functions is writing model bills that advance conservative principles and working with its members to have these bills introduced. CCA has been a corporate member and a major contributor to ALEC and a member of its Criminal Justice Task Force.

CCA executives have co-chaired the Task Force over many years. As a result of the model bills developed by the Task Force, ALEC claims credit for the widespread adoption of Truth in Sentencing and Three Strikes/Habitual Offender legislation.

Through its support of ALEC, CCA is helping to create greater demand for its services as a result of changes in state policies that keep more people behind bars for longer periods. Although this aspect of its work is not given a major emphasis in the report, it surely represents the most troubling impact of for-profit prison companies.

With more than two million people behind bars and the highest rate of incarceration in the world, the U.S. certainly does not need companies with a vested financial interest in further growth influencing our justice policies.

As Grassroots Leadership's report so fully documents, CCA has little to be proud of in its 20-year-history. Unfortunately, the problems that have dogged it are unlikely to stand in the way of its growth, particularly at the federal level where its pro-privatization, pro-incarceration policies are mirrored by the current administration.

Even at the state level, where the report optimistically suggests that declining prison populations will hurt the company, there are signs that cash-strapped state governments are again turning to the private sector to solve short-term problems without any consideration to the long-term impacts.

And even though CCA itself has pulled back from the international area after a number of well publicized problems, the model of prison privatization it developed is still being sold to nations in transition that can ill-afford either the social or economic costs associated with profit-driven prison growth. CCA may believe it has much to celebrate. The rest of us have good reason to hold our applause.

Jenni Gainsborough is director of the Washington office of Penal Reform International.

Private Prisons for Dummies: The Wild Ride of the Corrections Corporation of America... The Challenge of Crime in A Free Society Paul's Justice Page

By Jenni Gainsborough, AlterNet December 15, 2003


New National Study of Corrections Corporation of America Warns Investors and Legislators of Risky Investment. Report explores continuing operational and financial problems; questions CCA's long-term viability as states reassess prison policies.

Finally, States Release The Pressure on Prisons?
US: After decades of massive prison growth, America may be ending its love affair with incarceration. Policymakers around the country, some of whom previously supported ratcheting up punishments, have begun to rethink the wisdom of unbridled prison expansion, and are advocating alternatives to simply "locking them up and throwing away the key."

California Parole System Deemed 'Broken'
SACRAMENTO, Calif: California spends $1.5 billion annually on parolees who mostly fail and are sent back behind bars because they are no better prepared for life on the outside than the day they entered prison, according to a report.

People with Mental Retardation in the Criminal Justice System
Based on the 1990 census, an estimated 6.2 to 7.5 million people in the United States have mental retardation. Various studies have suggested between 2 percent to 10 percent of the prison population has mental retardation.

USA: With Cash Tight, States Reassess Long Jail Terms
OLYMPIA, Wash., Nov. 6 - After two decades of passing ever tougher sentencing laws and prompting a prison building boom, state legislatures facing budget crises are beginning to rethink their costly approaches to crime.

After a war waged by the U.S. military against Vietnam which took the lives of more than 3 million Vietnamese people and more than 58,000 GIs, the U.S. finally withdrew in 1975. It had suffered its first official major military defeat by a united people struggle led by the Vietnamese, along with a mass U.S. anti-war movement.

Report on State Prisons Cites Mental Illness
NEW YORK: Nearly one of every four New York State prisoners who are kept in punitive segregation [solitary confinement], confined to a small cell at least 23 hours a day are mentally ill, according to a new report by a nonprofit group that has been critical of state prison policies.

High court keeps alive case of prisoners held in solitary
NEW ORLEANS: The nation's highest court refused Monday to kill a lawsuit brought by two prisoners and an ex-prisoner at the Louisiana State Penitentiary who spent decades in solitary confinement.

US: Mentally Ill Mistreated in Prison More Mentally Ill in Prison Than in Hospitals (New York, October 22, 2003) Mentally ill offenders face mistreatment and neglect in many U.S. prisons, Human Rights Watch. "Prisons have become the nation's primary mental health facilities. But for those with serious illnesses, prison can be the worst place to be."

Shut down the Security Torture Units
San Francisco: October 18 In solidarity with other prison activist organizations, MIM, RAIL, the Barrio Defense Committee (BDC) and the Prison Reform Unity Project held a four hour rally in San Francisco demanding the Security Housing Units (SHUs) in California prisons be shut down.

Solitary Confinement: Mental illness in prisons
As noted earlier, inmates [prisoners] with mental illness are over represented in our toughest prison settings. Symptoms of mental illness (i.e., delays in response time, paranoia, difficulty interpreting the actions of others, command hallucinations, and so on) can make complying with prison rules difficult.

Post-Incarceration Sentences
Pat: "The 1990s brought a new front in the war on drugs, featuring a new layer of the Prison Industrial Complex, which has the effect of ensuring that people coming in contact with the criminal punishment system remain within the grasp of the Prison Industrial Complex even beyond prison walls."

Inside Prison, Outside the Law
Every year, tens of thousands of prisoners in state and federal custody are attacked. The exact number who die is difficult to determine: According to the nonprofit Criminal Justice Institute, in 2000, the most recent year for which figures have been compiled, 55 prisoners were murdered, 39 died "accidentally," and 118 died for unknown reasons.

Day Seven of the Fast for Freedom in Mental Health:
PASADENA, CALIF: On the seventh day of a hunger strike by six psychiatric survivors to oppose human rights violations in the mental health system, the American Psychiatric Association faces a direct and unprecedented challenge from a Scientific Panel of 14 academics and clinicians.

Supreme Court Justice Criticises Sentencing Guidelines
San Francisco, August 9, 2003, Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said today that prison terms are too long and that he favours scrapping the practice of setting mandatory minimum sentences for some federal crimes.

US prison population 2.1 million
The US prison population grew more than twice as fast last year as in 2001, bringing the total number of people held behind bars in the United States to more than 2.1 million, a record, according to a government report.

McKean Federal Prison: An Alleged Model
McKean, a federal correctional institution [? prison], does everything that "make 'em bust rocks" politicians decry--imagine, educating inmates [prisoners]! And it works. [Allegedly works.]

Prisoners Justice Day Press Release (Montreal)
On August 10th, 1974, Eddie Nalon bled to death in a solitary confinement unit at Millhaven Maximum Security Prison near Kingston,Ontario when the emergency call button in his cell failed to work. An inquest later found that the call buttons in that unit had been deactivated by the guards.

Notebook of a Prison Abolitionist
In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass recalls how as a slave he would occasionally hear of the "abolitionists." He did not know the full meaning of the word at first, but he heard it used in ways that he found appealing.

Study Warns of Rising Tide of Released Prisoners
Washington: More than 625,000 former prisoners will be coming back into U.S. society this year, part of a record flow of prisoners who will face crushing obstacles in finding work and housing and repairing long-fractured family ties, according to a newly released study.

Incite Statement Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex
We call social justice movements to develop strategies and analysis that address both state AND interpersonal violence, particularly violence against women.

Second International Conference on Human Rights & Prison Reform
**This second gathering will be much smaller and more in depth in participation. A report on the human rights violation of discrimination in regard to prisoners will be produced. This report will be given to the Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights which will be having its annual meeting near our conference and is the"think tank" for the human rights agenda of the United Nations.

Judged Forever- The Orange County Register
US: California's largest job-placement program for parolees will be shut down May 31 after an Orange County Register investigation found that ex-convicts were sent to questionable jobs [?] and that the state was charged for placements that did not occur. [? According to the ruling-class]

California Family Visiting Case
US: CALIFORNIA: Today (5/03/08) in Superior Court around twenty friends and family members of inmates from CSP Solano showed up to show their support in the Gordon vs. CA Department of Corrections (Case #322862) which deals with the subject of bringing back Family Visits to all inmates.

Prison Rates Among Blacks Reach a Peak, Report Finds
An estimated 12 percent of African-American men ages 20 to 34 are in jail or prison, according to a report released yesterday by the Justice Department.

Justices question prison visitation policies
WASHINGTON: In a case that could affect the visitation rights of millions of prisoners, Supreme Court justices on Wednesday struggled with the question of whether inmates have a constitutional right to visits with friends and family.