Privately Run Prisons Not the Answer


New Age Jail for a New Millennium

Tom, Dick, and Harry are in prison.  They find a magic lamp and rub it.
A genie appears and grants them a wish each.  Tom wishes to be at home with his girlfriend.
Dick wishes to be at home with his mother.  Once they are away, Harry says: "I wonder what I should wish for.
I wish my friends were here to help me make my choice..."


by Alan Perrott

The first - and possibly the last - privately run prison in New Zealand is about to open for business in Mt Eden

The invitations are out and the first batch of guests is about to move into the new $40 million Auckland Central Remand Prison.  The awkwardly titled ACRP will be the fIrst - and possibly the last - privately run prison in New Zealand.  For Corrections Minister Matt Robson, the 5-year contract issued to Australian Correctional Management is an uncomfortable hangover from the Shipley Administration that he would rather do away with.  He claims that privatising prisons turns them into a growth industry - why would private managers want to reduce their prison population and put themselves out of a job?

But management debates aside, an inspection of the prison suggests that doing time is becoming a little more comfortable.  There is none of the forbidding Colditz feel of that neighbouring rocky ruin, Mt Eden Prison, which Mr Robson wants to see closed by 2003.  The new remand facility boasts a gymnasium (complete with individualised programmes), snooker tables, bathrooms attached to each cell and more than 200 televisions.  Mr Robson is more than happy with the new look: he feels prisons need to break away from the model established by Victorian mental institutions - "grey, damp, secret-looking places hidden behind rows of sad trees and impossibly high fences."

But as an incentive to keep inmates behind bars, the ACM contract includes a $50,000 penalty for every prisoner who manages to find a way out.

Tim Bannatyne, general manager of service purchasing and monitoring for the Department of Corrections, said the new prison was the best facility they could get for the budget available.  He rejects criticism of the abundance of televisions, saying it was common practice for prisoners to be allowed to bring in their own sets.  ACM had decided to provide the sets to minimise the chance of prisoners sneaking in drugs or any other unwanted items inside their own televisions.

But not all welcome the new facility.  Penal reform campaigner Peter Williams, QC, has slammed the remand prison as a "monstrosity" and a "poultry farm."  He says too many people are being locked up already while awaiting trial on what are only minor charges.  He wants remand prisoners to shift from big houses to little halfway houses, hereby reducing the overcrowding in jails like Mt Eden and the stress on prisoners and guards.

Council of Civil Liberties spokesman Barry Wilson agrees, but goes a step further by asking for the Black Maria at the bottom of the cliff to be replaced with jobs at the top.  "While any new accommodation facilities would be an improvement on what we have, I don't think building new prisons is the way to bring the prison population down."  He would rather see the Government create fewer prisons and more jobs, provide more educational opportunities and make special efforts for Maori and Pacific Islanders.

Source: New Zealand Herald Friday 14 July 2000

Profits for Prisoners

by Frank Wu

The proliferation of private prisons threatens the civil rights of us all.  The institutions should trouble members of a free society because they generate profits off the wholesale deprivation of individual liberty and embody a philosophy of punishment that allows us to write off many of our own citizens as beyond civilisation.  In other words, they reward our most punitive impulses.

The corporations that operate penitentiaries have become highly successful commercial ventures.  Crime prevention has been a growth area for government spending, even when the economy has been down.  The incarceration industry now earns an estimated $250 - $400 million in taxpayer-supported annual revenues.

Business is good enough that the leading prison construction companies are willing to build on speculation, erecting giant facilities with the expectation that they will soon receive a lucrative contract delivering the necessary inmates.  Some states, such as Tennessee, have considered turning over all their prisons to independent operators.  Other leaders have proposed exporting criminals to a complex located in Mexico, where labor costs are considerably lower.

Despite a few recent setbacks - California cancelled plans to commission several new detention centers and Pennsylvania declared them unlawful - these market-oriented penal colonies have been expanding since the first one opened in 1984.  Nationwide, there are about 200 of them operated by companies such as market leader Corrections Corporation of America.  Together they are capable of housing well over 100,000 convicts, and many are eagerly starting to accept maximum-security offenders instead of juveniles or the mentally ill.

Private prisons reveal with stark clarity that the criminal-justice system is about much more than law and order, preserving the peace and protecting personal safety.  The late French philosopher Michel Foucault, for all his radical fetishism (he would have abolished any concept of crime at all), made an important point in his critical history of the prison system: it is an apparatus of power.  It not only defines and enforces social norms, but also gives the government its greatest coercive force other than the military.

What counts as crime depends on what we choose to condemn.  Reversing trends throughout the Western world, our contemporary list of forbidden conduct has become longer and longer while sanctions have become harsher and harsher.

The debtors' prison of centuries gone by obviously used to regulate the poor.  The modern prison more subtly does so.  The prison, especially a private prison that does not answer to any authority other than itself, is just not the sort of place that most well-to-do people or ordinary folks expect to find themselves or their families in.

Upper- and middle-class Americans are right about that belief, even if it is shameful that they hold it.  They are correct in the sense that socioeconomic status correlates inversely with the likelihood of being imprisoned.  They are wrong, however, to think that should be a birthright, for it cannot be justice that the drug-addicted wealthy are allowed to check into a rehab clinic or diverted to a treatment program, while the poor confront "zero tolerance" and "three strikes, you're out" laws.  Moreover, African Americans and Hispanics make up 2/3 of those behind bars; contrary to stereotype, the overwhelming majority of them have been found guilty of non-violent charges.

In this context, the commercial motives of the prison industry further corrupt the purposes of confinement.  Firms answer to corporate shareholders, not societal stakeholders.  As a function of market dynamics, once private prisons are built, they create demand for bodies to fill them: the more inmates, the more profits.  Impoverished towns already compete to attract the construction of private prisons - which means they are indirectly in the market for prisoners.

Private prisons are an example of benefits that are privatised while costs remain public.  In this case, the money that is made flows to the owners of the private prison.  Meanwhile, the burdens of liability and oversight are still borne by the state.

The consequences become apparent if the felon is beaten to death or escapes, both of which happened in separate incidents at a Youngstown, Ohio, private prison.  Prisoners' rights are extremely difficult to establish and effectively enforce thanks to the unpopularity of the cause.  The additional influence of cost containment will ensure that they are neglected.  Even observers who may not much care about the humanity toward wrongdoers undoubtedly would agree, though, that the risk of a prison break should be minimised if possible.  Measures and treatments that would help either offender or society, or even both, are not likely to be considered, much less implemented, unless they also enhance the bottom line.

Yet the argument against private prisons cannot be merely that they make money from misery.  What distinguishes private prisons from any other ordinary business is that their stock in trade is the control of human beings.  Worse still, the more efficient their operations the more they allow the rest of us to avoid democratic deliberation - or even public consideration - about criminal justice.

Indeed, private prisons should alarm libertarians especially.  The invocation of libertarian principles to support private prisons is ironic.  Liberty and confinement are at odds.

Unfortunately, the public discourse about criminal punishment has become impossible because reform efforts are dismissed.  Being "soft on crime" or even being perceived as "soft on crime" is politically fatal.

Even people who are not persuaded by liberal ideals of rehabilitation should be convinced by pragmatic goals of prevention.  Because the prison creates its own isolated culture, the non-violent offenders who might have had a chance to make it on the outside are turned into violent ones during their stay and the dangerous felons into unrepentent recidivists by time of their release.  A vicious cycle is created.  As the prison population becomes more and more like itself, and less and less like the rest of us, we must subject them to sterner and stronger treatment.  Mandatory minimums give way to life sentences and then to the death penalty in an escalating sequence.

The crisis of private prisons reflects other problems.  Our incarceration rate of more than 400 people per 100,000 is higher than any other nation.  It continues to increase even though the crime rate is decreasing.  Undoubtedly, the fact that running a prison is big business contributes to this increase.  The statistics indict all of us for our collective failure to create a civil society.  It is in our mutual self-interest to improve the situation.  A good start would be eliminating private prisons.

Frank H Wu is an associate professor of law at Howard University.  His e-mail address is

Source: Intellectual Capital where Professor Wu was a regular commentator Thursday 24 Feb 2000

Remember: Uncle Sam wants YOU!

Did things get any better over the next several years?  Not at all...

Ruining Young Lives for Profit

by Nicole Colson

"I felt like I had been thrown into some surreal sort of nightmare.  All I wanted to know was how this could be fair, and why the judge would do such a thing."

Hillary Transue had good reason to question how the judge overseeing her case could have to come to the decision he did.  In 2007, after a hearing lasting just 90 seconds, the 17-year-old found herself hauled away from court in handcuffs and thrown into a juvenile detention centre.  She was sentenced to 3 months for the crime of harassment after she created a mock site on the social networking website MySpace that made fun of the assistant principal at her high school.  The sentence was incredibly harsh considering that Hillary was a stellar student who had never been in trouble before - and that she put a disclaimer on the site itself stating that it was a joke.  But now, it's clear why Hillary and hundreds of other kids like her received sentences in a juvenile detention centre that were totally disproportionate to their crime.

In a word: money.

Earlier this month, 2 Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, judges - Mark Ciavarella Jr and Michael Conahan - pled guilty to taking $2.6 million in kickbacks in exchange for throwing juveniles into 2 for-profit private detention centres, Pennsylvania Child Care and a sister company, Western Pennsylvania Child Care.  Under a plea agreement, both judges will serve 87 months in federal prison and be disbarred.

* * *

Beginning in late 2002, Conahan, as the president judge in control of the budget, and Ciavarella, overseeing the juvenile courts, moved to close the county-run juvenile detention centre, arguing that it was run-down.  They argued that the county had no choice but to send juveniles to the then newly built Pennsylvania Child Care and Western Pennsylvania Child Care.  The 2 facilities, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "are [partially] owned by Greg Zappala, brother of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A Zappala Jr and son of former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stephen A Zappala Sr."

Conahan apparently secured contracts worth tens of millions of dollars for the 2 facilities to house juveniles, while Ciavarella made sure the centres stayed full - by railroading vulnerable teens into the centres after trials that sometimes lasted just a minute or 2.  In the state of Pennsylvania, juvenile proceedings are closed to the public, and teens can waive their right to counsel at trial.  It appears as though some of those who appeared in front of Ciavarella unknowingly waived their right to counsel - only to find themselves suddenly locked up after the abbreviated hearings.

In one case, a 17-year-old who stole a bottle of nutmeg appeared without a lawyer before Ciavarella - and ended up spending more than 7 months at 3 different detention facilities.  Jamie Quinn, was sent away to Pennsylvania Child Care and several other detention centres for 11 months when she was just 14 years old, after she got in a fight with a friend, and they both slapped each other.  "[A]ll that happened was just a basic fight," Quinn told Democracy Now's Amy Goodman.  "She slapped me in the face, and I did the same thing back.  There [were] no marks, no witnesses, nothing.  It was just her word against my word."  The effect on her life was devastating.  "People looked at me different when I came out, thought I was a bad person, because I was gone for so long," Quinn said.  "My family started splitting up because I was away and got locked up.  I'm still struggling in school, because the schooling system in facilities like these places is just horrible."

While in detention, Quinn was forced to take medication and began to suffer depression.  She resorted to cutting herself.  "I was never depressed," she said.  "I was never put on meds before.  I went there, and they just started putting meds on me, and I didn't even know what they were.  They said if I didn't take them, I wasn't following my programme."

Jesse Miers appeared before Ciavarella when he was 17.  He had tried to return a stolen gun after seeing a friend's 13-year-old brother wave it around.  When he couldn't find the owner, he turned the gun over to his boss, who later handed it over to police.  A year later, Miers was a passenger in a car that was pulled over for a moving violation - and when police checked his name, he was surprised to find he had a warrant for his arrest.  Though Miers says he asked for a public defender, none was present at his hearing in front of Judge Ciavarella.  Because he had heard of Ciavarella's reputation for not letting defendants have a chance to speak, Miers asked to be allowed to write a letter to the judge.  "I wanted to state my case, but they only gave me 5 minutes to write it, and the judge didn't even read it anyway," Miers said.  "I had maybe 45 seconds in front of [Ciavarella]," he told the Post-Gazette.  "He just said 'Remand him,' and they put me in shackles.  I was shackled for 13 hours while I waited for them to take me" in a van from the Luzerne County Courthouse to the juvenile detention centre in Allegheny Township, 270 miles away from his home.

* * *

According to the New York Times, youth advocates had been raising concerns about Ciavarella for years.  Between 2002 and 2006, Ciavarella sent juvenile defendants to detention centers at 2.5 times greater rate than the state average.  Fully a quarter of the children who appeared before him were locked away, and he routinely ignored pleas for leniency, even when they came from prosecutors and court probation officers.  In all, some 5,000 juveniles were sentenced by Ciavarella since the kickback scheme began in 2003.  As the Times noted, "Many of them were first-time offenders and some remain in detention."  Moreover, when the Pennsylvania-based Juvenile Law Center began investigating after being contacted by Hillary Transue's mother, it found that Luzerne County had half of all waivers of counsel by young people in juvenile court in Pennsylvania.  Despite the fact that the juvenile court in Luzerne County processes about 1,200 juvenile defendants a year, there is just one public defender on staff for juveniles.

"I've never encountered, and I don't think that we will in our lifetimes, a case where literally thousands of kids' lives were just tossed aside in order for a couple of judges to make some money," Marsha Levick, an attorney with the Juvenile Law Center, told the Associated Press.

Clay Yeager, the former director of the Office of Juvenile Justice in Pennsylvania, told the Times that Ciavarella and Conahan shouldn't have gotten away with railroading kids for as long as they did.  Although juvenile hearings are usually kept closed to the public, "they are kept open to probation officers, district attorneys and public defenders, all of whom are sworn to protect the interests of children," said Yeager.  "It's pretty clear those people didn't do their jobs."

While both Ciavarella and Conahan are now headed to federal prison, the case exposes the way in which the trend towards privatisation in the US prison system has made money for some, at the expense of justice.  For-profit privatised prisons have become commonplace around the US since the 1980s, when an explosion in the prison population due to the "war on drugs" left state facilities overcrowded.  Today, corporations like GEO Group, Corrections Corporation of America and others run private facilities that promise to house prisoners for less than states are able to - by paying guards lower wages and fewer benefits, and cutting costs on inmate housing and care.

Whether anyone affiliated with Pennsylvania Child Care or Western Pennsylvania Child Care will face punishment for their role in locking up thousands of kids remains to be seen.  So far, no official from either detention centre has been charged with any crime.  In fact, a letter sent last week from US Attorney Martin Carlson to attorneys for the two detention centres stated that their corporate clients aren't the target of a probe and won't be indicted by a grand jury.  Although two class-action lawsuits have been filed on behalf of the teens who were wrongfully imprisoned, real justice won't be served as long as Pennsylvania Child Care and other detention centres like it are allowed to remain open - and as long as the US justice system is set up to prioritise profit over the lives of young people.

Nicole Colson lives in Chicago, where she works as a reporter for the Socialist Worker

Source: 27 February - 1 March 2009

Another flaw in human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.  And the worst flaw is that we're just plain dumb!  Admit it!

- Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus

While I very much agree in principle with the above article, I have issues.  To begin, this article conflates too many problems.  First, there is the problem of judges taking kickbacks - something that may not have occurred if the youths were not able to be sent to private institutions.  Second, the judges were giving the children and their rights short shrift even before the kickbacks started.  Third, there is the problem of private prisons themselves.  Fourth, this article is not as well-written as it might have been and therefore may not have as much positive effect as it otherwise could have had.

I'll take the last issue first as it is the most straightforward.  Most people in trouble with the law who are being interviewed are going to present their situation in the most favourable light they can.  Since Ciavarella and Conahan have been sentenced to prison, clearly the children's version would have been largely, or completely, true.  Still, it would possibly have been instructive to hear if there was another side.  Was the school's assistant principal satisfied with the punishment meted out to Hillary Transue?  Why?  What's his story?  Jamie Quinn "resorted to cutting herself" because she was placed on meds and her family was splitting up because she was "away"?  What did Jesse Miers' boss say to the police that made them issue a warrant for Jesse's arrest?  Some of these children may very well have received a sentence even under a judge honestly trying to do his job properly.  But what kind of correctional facility would have been able to help them?  But that's a separate issue and I digress.

The problem of the judges taking kickbacks hardly needs addressing.  Of course that's wrong.  The issue that's relevant is that the kickbacks would likely not have occurred if the institutions were not privately held.  (I will address this in more detail in a minute.)  This leads me to problem #2 - the kids' rights were ignored.  The ones with the worst outcomes seem to have gone through their ordeal quite alone.  In fact, according to CBS News, "Under Pennsylvania law, a juvenile may not waive his right to an attorney unless the decision is made 'knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily.'  The judge must also formally question defendants to make sure they understand their rights, something Ciavarella routinely did not do."  So, would mandatory counsel have made some of these problem go away?  Some, maybe, but not nearly enough.

To me, as much of a scandal is the question, "Where were the parents in all this?"  But I digress again.

To address the topic of private prisons one more time:

The existence of private prisons means that the goal of making a profit is paramount.  Commercial motives of private prisons are incompatible with the presumptive goals of confinement.  Private prisons reap the profits while the taxpayer still shoulders the financial burden.  Pressure is applied in the wrong places.  Reducing recidivism is no longer a goal - if this prisoner is released only to return again, well hey - more money for the private prison.  When a state prison releases a prisoner, it would save the taxpayer money if the ex-prisoner henceforth went straight and became a productive, tax-paying member of society.  The state could even pay bonuses to wardens who were able to reduce recidivism rates the most.  The added financial incentive to save money for the shareholders of private prisons means that the corners that are cut make the experience of the prisoners worse.

Unfortunately, public response to articles such as the ones above is 1. Outrage.  2. Lawsuits.  3. No change.

Compare private prisons with this government-run prison in New Zealand:

French a Hit with Rimutaka's Captive Market

by Nathan Beaumont

Sacre bleu!  Rimutaka Prison inmates have been getting French and Spanish language lessons to stop them from becoming bored and disruptive.  About 20 prisoners took part in the 3-week lessons, which were included in a range of classes on offer, including money management, creative writing and letter-writing.  Art classes and sporting activities were also available.

The language classes targeted prisoners who were "too well educated" to take part in the prison's literacy programmes.  The Corrections Department has been criticised for wasting prison funds on the language classes, but the department said they motivated prisoners to learn.  "Motivating prisoners to make changes to their lives is critical in reducing reoffending," spokeswoman Liz Nielsen said of the classes that were run by two tutors already employed by the prison.  "These activities address idleness in prison, which is important because bored prisoners are far more likely to be disruptive and troublesome for our staff."

But lobby group Rethinking Crime and Punishment said the language classes were not the best use of prison funding.  "I wouldn't see it as a priority and I certainly wouldn't be putting my money there, but the more inmates who are occupied, the safer the prison is," director Kim Workman said.  But he was a "massive fan" of courses that enhanced inmates' employment chances after release.

Business New Zealand chief executive Phil O'Reilly said though he did not want to "completely bag" the idea, he thought there were more useful training courses that could be given to prisoners.  But Corrections Minister Phil Goff backed any moves to boost prisoners' skills.  He said recent screening of inmates had indicated that a high proportion did not have basic literacy.  The 2003 census showed that 52% of prisoners had no formal qualifications and only 45% were in paid work before going into prison.  Though the language courses had proved popular, Corrections has not decided if they would be repeated.

Source: 9 August 2008

And finally, just how did the US get into this mess?  For the first time in history, more than 1 in every 100 American adults is in jail or prison, according to a new Pew report tracking the surge in inmate population...

US Prison System a Costly and Harmful Failure: Report

by Randall Mikkelsen

Washington - The number of people in US prisons has risen 8-fold since 1970, with little impact on crime but at great cost to taxpayers and society, researchers said in a report calling for a major -system overhaul.  The report cites examples ranging from former vice-presidential aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby to a Florida woman's 2-year sentence for throwing a cup of coffee to make its case for reducing the US prison population of 2.2 million - nearly ΒΌ of the world's total.

It recommends shorter sentences and parole terms, alternative punishments, more help for released inmates and decriminalising recreational drugs.  It said the steps would cut the prison population in half, save $20 billion a year and ease social inequality without endangering the public.  But the recommendations run counter to decades of broad US public and political support for getting tough on criminals through longer, harsher prison terms and to the Bush administration's anti-drug and strict-sentencing policies.

"President (George W) Bush was right," in commuting Libby's perjury sentence this year as excessive, the report said.  But he should also have commuted the sentences of hundreds of thousands of other Americans, it said.  "Our contemporary laws and justice system practices exacerbate the crime problem, unnecessarily damage the lives of millions of people (and) waste tens of billions of dollars each year," it said.  The report was produced by the JFA Institute, a Washington criminal-justice research group, and its authors included 8 criminologists from major US public universities.  It was funded by the Rosenbaum Foundation and by financier and political activist George Soros' Open Society Institute.

The Justice Department dismissed the recommendations and cited findings that about 25% of the violent-crime drop in the 1990s can be attributed to increases in imprisonment.  "The United States is experiencing a 30-year low in crime, in large part due to the tough enforcement actions we've taken in the last decade," department spokesman Peter Carr said.  But there are signs of shifting attitudes on sentencing policies.  Some financially strapped states are shortening sentences and Congress is moving to pass increased help for released prisoners, said Executive Director Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, which has advocated alternatives to long sentences.  "Compared to where we were in the mid-(19)90s, it's been a very significant change," Mauer said.

More than 1.5 million people are now in US state and federal prisons, up from 196,429 in 1970, the report said.  Another 750,000 people are in local jails.  The US incarceration rate is the world's highest, followed by Russia, according to 2006 figures compiled by Kings College in London.

Although the US crime rate began declining in the 1990s it is still about the same as in 1973, the JFA report said.  But the prison population has soared because sentences have gotten longer and people who violate parole or probation, even with minor lapses, are more likely to be imprisoned.  "The system is almost feeding on itself now.  It takes years and years and years to get out of this system and we do not see any positive impact on the crime rates," JFA President James Austin, a co-author of the report, told a news conference.

The report said the prison population is projected to grow by another 192,000 in 5 years, at a cost of $27.5 billion to build and operate additional prisons.  At current rates, 1/3 of all black males, 1/6 of Latino males, and 1 in 17 white males will go to prison during their lives.  Women represent the fastest-growing segment of the prison population, the report said.  "The massive incarceration of young males from mostly poor- and working-class neighbourhoods, and the taking of women from their families and jobs, has crippled their potential for forming healthy families and achieving economic gains," it said.

Editing by David Alexander and Cynthia Osterman

Source: 19 November 2007

This is still another reason why I like living in New Zealand...

For articles on white collar and petty crimes, injustice, capital punishment, race, executioners, freedom of the press, cheating, private prisons, punishment, retribution, prison labour, appeals, instant justice, electronic tags, lepers and second chances click the "Up" button below to take you to the Index for this Prisons section.

Back Home Up Next