Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Compelling Option for Incarceration

I watched a storm roll sluggishly through Livingston today. Not the sort of thing that I usually spend my time on, but this may have a lot to do with the fact that it hasn’t rained around here since like 1981, if the current wave of “Drought 2011” hysteria is to be believed. I was sitting at my desk typing a letter when the entire room got uncharacteristically dark. My lamp was still burning, its soon-to-be-extinct-thanks-to-those-damned-Democrats incandescent bulb smoldering inefficiently away, same as always. (Insert whatever level of Tea Party outrage you feel is justified at this point.) I hopped up onto my bunk to peer out of the window and was immediately confronted by a strange, menacing looking gray thingy up in the sky. It seemed vaguely familiar to me, and a few hours poring over my dictionary eventually led me to the term “thunderhead." Ah. Those. The storm came in slowly from the north, and the trees in the distance gradually faded from sight mere minutes before the drops began to splat against the parched ground outside my cell. Even the crows seemed exuberant, dancing a group waltz on the electrified fence, mocking us all, as always.

Later on during the evening news, the weatherman got himself worked into such a lather that you would have thought this was Genesis 7 all over again. And me without my two elephants.

The drought really has been a bad one, though I don’t suppose that is really breaking news to anyone living in the US, I think most of the southwest is having one of the worst dry spells in recorded history, though, of course, this has nothing to do with global warming, which is a liberal hoax. At least so says my friend, Mr. Biggus Bldnus, who is usually trustworthy on such matters. Proving just how damned un-American was this refusal of Mother Nature to play nice, Fourth of July celebrations were severely curtailed this year. In most (if not all) of the counties which make up the city of Houston, they were barred from sale altogether. Somehow, celebrating the independence of our nation from those bloody Poms just isn’t the same without setting fire to something, is it?

And that's the rub, it seems, for many. Never mind that in these conditions, setting fire to "something" could potentially translate very quickly into setting fire to everything. One lady being interviewed on the local news burst into tears, claiming that this is "supposed to be a free country and we should be able to buy fireworks if we want em!" Somehow, I am sure, this is all Obama's fault, or at least that of his socialist-atheist-Muslim secret backers, (Hey, Newt, out of curiosity, how exactly does one manage being an atheist and a Muslim simultaneously? Yeah, your campaign is doing well. Good job!) It came out later in the interview that the histrionic hick in question actually owned a fireworks supply warehouse in Conroe, Texas. Ah. Apparently, “freedom” in this sense really meant something akin to "the ability to have a fat wallet, and damn the consequences.” Seems to be an awful lot of that sort of thing going around these days.

I really did feel bad for this vendor, though. She was probably counting on this extra summer revenue, and she sounded pretty despondent. And for all of my jokes, I like blowing stuff up in the name of freedom as much as anyone. (My first run-in with the law came at the age of ten, actually, when me and my friend Matt C combined PVC pipes with Roman Candles to make a homemade bazooka; that was a long time ago, but I am pretty sure that there was no mens rea involved. Didn’t stop Mr. C from whipping our butts, though.) My pity for the fireworks lady was limited by the fact that she was effectively saying she was morally just peachy-keen on the idea of selling her product while the entire state resembles one gigantic tinderbox. There is no such thing as "perfect" freedom, at least not in the US. Perfect freedom would be total anarchy, and we all make a tacit agreement that such a system would not work when we agree to live under the rule of law. "Government interference" in this case was needed to save lives and property, and we can temper our sympathies for this small businesswoman by admitting to ourselves that she was just a little too interested in the subject matter to be rational. The closer you are to something, the more carefully you must check yourself to see if your connection is truly free from bias or benefit. We all know this.

And so I begin with a disclaimer. I am writing about private, for-profit prisons today, and it should be acknowledged that I am a prisoner. Perfectly obvious fact, of course, but it is only fair to say upfront that I am close to this subject. That said, I would like to offer up a few mitigating points which may grant me the appropriate distance needed to seem worthy of being listened to. First, as a death row inmate, I am not now housed in a private prison, and never will be. Even were I to have my sentence commuted to life in prison, I would never be housed at a private unit, based on my classification status. To state it plainly: you have a far better chance of being arrested and sent to a privately operated prison farm than I do, by many orders of magnitude. I will simply never have to deal with one of these places ever, ever again. Period. My interest in this subject therefore deals entirely with ethical and financial concerns, and should be seen as such.

Here's the basic problem, and I am going to put on a little vignette to illustrate it, though the reality is almost too kooky to screw with. Johnnie Nogood commits a crime. He is arrested, and goes to court where he is sentenced to 15 years. While in the pen, Johnnie is - if he is lucky - given educational and vocational training, so that when he is released he has a better chance of staying out. This is option A. Option B goes something like: Johnnie is sent to a penal farm where he is simply warehoused, where he learns how to smoke dope and be an idiot, which he masters before he is paroled. Whether option A or B happens is due largely to factors outside of his control, such as whether he had the good sense to be arrested in the northeast or stupid enough to get popped in the South. Either way, prison serves the function of incapacitation: whatever Johnnie Nogood does with his time, he is not out on the streets mugging old ladies on the way home from church. Either way, prison is fulfilling the role of keeping the public safe. While there are people who benefit economically from Johnnie's actions (lawyers, prison guards, judges), most of those people are generally thought of as necessary to the safety of a well-functioning society, and do not celebrate each criminal act as a potential windfall. They are, in other words, mostly reactions to the existence of crime, the public consequence of idiots like me.

Private prisons are a third option, and one of a very different species altogether. They profit every single day from every single inmate that is placed into their care (and, as it happens upon closer inspection, even from empty beds where inmates were supposed to be kept, but were not for logistical reasons). They are not attempting to deal with crime as a social reality, and are not involved in any moral quandaries about the care that a society owes to offenders. They exist, very simply, to make money. And boy, do they ever. The Corrections Corporation of America made about 1.67 billion dollars last year; GEO made about 1.27 billion, and those are only two of the major players involved in this industry. About 8% (about 130,000 people in 2009, surely a low number for today' s statistics) of all federal and state inmates in America were housed in facilities created solely to make a buck. Think about that for a moment.

I see bitter articles and commentaries written about this subject all the time, but surely one of the most presentable that has come across my desk in months is a report recently released by the Justice Policy Institute called Gaming the System: How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies Promote Ineffective Incarceration Policies. You can read this report HERE or by checking the Facts and Statistics section of MB6 HERE. JPI does an excellent job of bringing one up to date on the subject, but I wont waste your time summarizing it; if this piece piques your interest in any way, you can go back and look at the facts later. Rather, I will simply explain to you why I think these types of prisons are bad for public safety and a bad deal for taxpayers.

Since I am writing from Texas, we will begin with the money, honey. As you can see from the map above, Texas is big on private prisons, the largest user of them, in fact, in the nation by a significant margin. The basic idea behind this model is that businesses would have a vested interest in lowering operating costs to a degree unmatchable in government circles, and would thus be more efficient. Some studies have, in fact, shown this to be the case. Some, like the General Accounting Office and the National Institute of Justice report (listed on page 32 of the JPI study) show little difference in costs. I think the more distant studies (like the GAO one) are quite a bit more believable than the ones paid for by the corporations in question, but let 's give them the benefit of the doubt and pretend that they actually do save some money.

I did time, pre-sentencing, at two privately run facilities operated by Civigenics, Inc. One thing I noticed during my time in these institutions was that there were few sick inmates. (Which was a good thing, because the prison infirmaries at these places were equipped only to handle minor injuries.) When an inmate needed serious medical attention, he was shipped off to a state run unit. You see the point? If you were running a construction company, and had the ability to rotate out injured or sick workers and replace them with healthy ones, of course your expenses would be lower, and your insurance rates more manageable. You would clearly outperform your competition in efficiency comparisons. Not having to pay for dialysis or cancer drugs or even anti-psychotic medicines would seriously affect ones total expenses. The ability for private facilities to do this sort of switcheroo on a daily basis comes from the contracts these companies sign with the states. Nobody ever seems to check these before they are signed, but come on, surely someone should have noticed that such an agreement would totally skew any and all future side-by-side comparisons, right?

Another advantage that private facilities possess is that they get to pick and choose inmates based on classification. They simply won’t accept anyone with a history of mental illness, violent disciplinary infractions, or political organizing. I myself was denied entrance at Grimes County before being sent to Limestone based on such a contract: they didn’t want to deal with anyone with a capital murder charge. Not worth the money. True, some of these types do slip through the cracks, but they are quickly identified and transferred out. Surely, we can all see how this ability gives private units a huge advantage in the sort of efficiency challenges favored by the corporations? It’s apples and oranges.

But it gets worse, of course (as it always seems to, in my articles these days). When it comes to services like drug treatment, job training, and mental health services, private prisons have a far worse track record than Texas-run institutions. Such programs are simply not "cost effective", which, again, is the entire point of these places. When it’s solely about profit, the well being of inmates - not to mention what they do when they are eventually released - is simply not a factor. These are not values you can express in P/L charts, quite simply. And so they are ignored.

While at Limestone and Polk County IAH, I never once saw a single class on any subject. The law library had few relevant or recent materials, and never once was I interviewed by anyone attempting to gauge my mental health status. All of these are required by law, but as I have noted before, a law is not a law if nobody cares about its implementation or enforcement.

One thing that Civigenic did do at both farms was write a lot of cases. I mean, for everything. Look at an officer wrong? Case. Your shirt came untucked? Case, and maybe a second one if you didn’t get the disorder squared away in a manner deemed sufficiently timely by the observing officer. Interestingly enough, you were never actually disciplined for anything, save fighting. They weren’t actually interested in fighting with you, as the low level officers at the unit were just trying to get through the day. They were simply under corporate orders to write a lot of cases. What Civigenics was interested in was in keeping you locked up. Every day that you were in their care, they were getting paid, so why would they ever want you to parole out? And trust me when I tell you that when you go before the Board with 70 or 80 cases (even cases where you did zero time in the time-out chair), you aren’t going anywhere but back to your cell. Try to file a grievance on anything like this, and it will be denied. There very simply isn’t anything like oversight in these places. Costs too much, of course.

Every once in a blue moon, one of these companies does get caught with their pants down, as in the case of Gregorio de la Rosa, Jr, an honorably discharged vet doing six months in a GEO facility for less than 1/4 gram of cocaine. A few days prior to his scheduled release, he was beaten to death by two other inmates. While GEO officers stood by and watched. While the unit's wardens smirked and laughed. Of course, then the company torched the evidence, including surveillance videos of the act. GEO was forced to pay 42 million bucks as a result of all of the lies. Doh. Of course, being the noble corporate souls that they are, they surely wont even think about passing those losses off to the state in the form of increased rates and fees, right? Wrong. In the end, you are going to pay that off. Hard to imagine that facility being cheaper than a comparable state-run unit for that year, eh?

While I was at Limestone, I personally witnessed a game of softball digress into a boxing match, all thanks to the prodding of the guards. Once the fray kicked off, the officers in the gun towers didn’t fire a single shot until more than 10 men were broken and bleeding on the ground. At IAH, all rec yards were indoors, but that didn’t stop a nice little observation party from forming any time there was an altercation amongst the inmates. It was all just a big party to them, entertainment in its rawest form. Had I known then what I know now about the law, I would have had a field day with §1983 on these people.

The end result of this strategy should be obvious: no one who spends any time at a privately run prison is going to be rehabilitated in any appreciable way, unless they undertake such measures on their own. The most the public can really hope for is that the criminal intentions of those incarcerated remain roughly static (though, of course, we know that the vast majority of men in this system actually increase in their propensities towards committing criminal acts). In short, these men are punted to the street no different (or far worse) than when they went in. That is no favor to the community. But, hey, you did save a few dollars a day, right? Right?

Surely, I am overstating things, right? Fair enough, Let's take a stroll through CCA's 2010 Annual Report for their opinion. Actually, let's hear from them three times, ahem:

“The demand for our facilities could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. Legislation has been proposed in numerous jurisdictions that could lower minimum sentences for some non-violent crimes and make more inmates eligible for early release based on good behavior. Also, sentencing alternatives under consideration could put some offenders on probation with electronic monitoring who would otherwise be incarcerated. Similarly, reductions in crime rate, or resources dedicated to prevent and enforce crime could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities."

"We believe the long-term growth opportunities of our business remain very attractive as insufficient bed development by our customers should result in a return to the supply and demand imbalance that has been benefiting the private prison industry."

"Our industry benefits from significant economies of scale, resulting in lower operating costs per inmate as occupancy rates increase. We believe we have been successful in increasing the number of residents in our care and continue to pursue a number of initiatives intended to further increase our occupancy and revenue. Our competitive cost structure offers prospective customers a compelling option for incarceration."

I don’t know what normal people feel when they read things like that. It nearly makes me ill. Note we are not talking about the public good here. We are talking about locking people up for money. We inmates are products, and their lowest operating costs depend on scale: the more cons, the higher the profits. Any talk about getting “smart on crime" is therefore to be killed. See the line about "initiatives"? What they mean here is that they lobby like crazy. They have their own PAC's (Political Action Committees). They donate millions to politicians.

As you can see in the above graph, Republicans are the major beneficiaries of these donations, but Democrats have plenty of fingers in the cookie jar, too. Everyone is getting their share. Evidence for the effects of their efforts can be seen very simply by one key set of statistics: while nationwide the numbers of state inmates has decreased in recent years, the numbers of inmates in private facilities has increased. When many states are shutting down prisons (specifically because they have discovered that the sort of rehabilitative programs I have endorsed on this site for years actually work), private companies are paying politicians to keep their investments active. Never mind that these are people we are talking about. Why don’t you Tea Partiers get pissed about this? Seems like the type of thing that ought to make you apoplectic with constitutionally-inspired rage. Just Google it. You will see that the evidence is plentiful.

The connections made by the companies are deep. CCA, for instance, was started by Tom Beasley, who at the time was the chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party. Think he instantly lost his Rolodex when he switched jobs? In 2007, President Bush nominated Gustavus Puryear IV to be a federal district court judge in Tennessee. Puryear was CCA's general counsel at the time. This job would have been a lifetime appointment, and yet, he had no qualifications, little to no litigation experience, and very low ratings from the ABA. What he did have was a close relationship to Dick Cheney, an investor in CCA. And here was his friend, being asked to be a judge presiding over the very district where CCA has its corporate headquarters. Had it not been for Prison Legal News and Alex Friedman, this would have happened. Fortunately, in a rare win for the good guys, the appointment was killed off. There are other examples of this sort of hi-jinks in the JPI report.

Like the fireworks vendor, these corporations should not be involved in designing or implementing criminal justice policy. After all, what they would LOVE is for a million people to be locked up, right now, and who cares whether they are innocent? Their interest - mountains of cash - comes at the expense of taxpayers, and at the expense of the men caught in their machinery. Frankly, when cell bars start to look like the columns of a spreadsheet, something is very, very wrong.

If anything I have written here smells off to you, please, fact check me. If you then feel compelled to have your voice heard on this issue, there are many organizations out there which are committed to eliminating privatized penal farms. One which has had past success can be found at:

Beyond that, your state rep is just an email or phone call away. Of course, you might want to ask him or her how much they have received from private prison companies in the past. If the answer is more than zero, you have every right as a citizen to tell them what you think about that.

(Admin note: A list of the members of the Texas House of Representatives and their contact details can be found HERE)

For an excellent article written by Craig Malisow on GEO’s activities in Texas, please see this LINK.

My thanks to the JUSTICE POLICY INSTITUTE for the report, which can be found HERE.

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© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved

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