Trading Warm Bodies For Cold Cash: How The Private Prison Industry Capitalizes On Human Suffering 

Trading Warm Bodies For Cold Cash: How The Private Prison Industry Capitalizes On Human Suffering

Time has a way of softening terminology, especially with regards to things we’d rather not think about and don’t entirely understand. During World War I, a British physician named Charles Samuel Myers wrote an article in The Lancet, using the term “shell shock” to describe the condition of soldiers at the front lines who were unable to withstand the psychological and emotional toll of trench warfare. By the time World War II arrived, shell shock had been replaced with the more expansive “combat fatigue”, a term which only lasted two decades before being renamed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during the Vietnam War. These name changes were not brought on due to any changes to the disorder itself—a man traumatized by a mustard gas attack in Ypres would exhibit similar symptoms to a downed pilot who was held hostage for a few years at the Hanoi Hilton—but because of the way that we as a society looked at the disorder had changed.

The same goes for our modern day correctional facilities, which used to have names that better suited their purpose. The etymology for the word jail, goes back to the Latin word cavea, or the diminutive caveola, meaning a “cage, stall or coop.” In fact, ancient Romans used the word cavea to refer to the small, subterranean pits in which they kept wild animals before gladiatorial combat. Prison comes from an old French word, prisoun, which derived from the Latin word for taken. As incarceration became the primary mode of punishment in most western cultures during the 19th century, these names were given a more pleasant spin. Over the course of a hundred years or so, our jails and prisons were transformed into reformatories and penitentiaries. No longer were the dregs of our society to be carted off and made to rot in squalor for their crimes. We would correct them. Gone were the days when we would lock up criminals in a house of detention. Now we would rehabilitate offenders in our newly formed correctional facilities so that they can re-enter society. In fact, the prison-industrial complex has done such a wonderful job in rehabilitating our nation’s felonious masses, that two-thirds of them are re-arrested within 3 years of their release so that they can come back and be corrected all over again.

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 One of the cellblocks at Eastern State Penitentiary, one of America’s 1st modern prisons

Traditionally it has been the case that, even with the most mismanaged and ineffective correctional facilities, one could argue that state and federal governments had a genuine desire to see their inmates succeed upon leaving their facilities, assuming that we consider just not getting rearrested as success. While one may think that the US government has turned into a vast Orwellian police-state that deals with dissidents and undesirables by locking them up, it’s pretty hard to find an argument in which Big Brother enjoys footing the bill for their incarcerated nation within a nation. As a method of population control, imprisoning 1.6 million people and jailing 700,000 more isn’t terribly cost effective. According to a 2012 study on the Price of Prisons published by the Vera Institute of Justice, the annual incarceration costs for the 40 states surveyed was $39 billion. Tack on the $8.5 billion requested this past year to cover the costs of Federal prisons along with those of the 10 states not included in the survey and you’ve got an annual prison budget larger than the GDP of most small Eastern European nations.

During these trying economic times when state governments and the Fed are looking for any budgetary fat to trim, cutting prison expenditures seems like a no brainer—and it would be, except for the fact that most state governors and Federal law enforcement officials really like keeping these “menaces to society” behind bars. So, being as habitually shortsighted as they are wont to be, state and federal officials decided to pay the private sector tomorrow in exchange for the proverbial hamburger today, accepting boatloads of cash up front from private corrections companies while agreeing to lengthy contracts guaranteeing the prison profiteers millions in revenue in the long haul. As a result, the private prison industry has ballooned over the past quarter century, going from housing 1% of the country’s prisoners in 1990 to more than 8% today. In terms of raw numbers, for-profit corrections companies are now responsible for over 133,000 imprisoned men an women, more than our nation’s entire incarcerated population during the 1920s. Now, our more conservative brothers and sisters would likely point to this as an example of the private sector doing for government what government could not do for itself. Here is an industry that is bloated with excess costs and substandard management that has been saved by the competence and business savvy attendant to the white knights of private enterprise. They may tell us that this is the free market at its finest, and they would not know what the hell they were talking about.

There are myriad reasons why privatizing our correctional system is a god awful idea, but the main one concerns the fairly simple question, “why do prisons exists?” If one were to ask someone in the Justice Department or a university professor with a doctorate in criminal justice, the answer would likely focus on the desire to provide disincentive for your average citizen to commit criminal acts while rehabilitating those who have already committed crimes so as to make them productive, law-abiding citizens again. Beginning with Eastern State Penitentiary and Sing Sing in the early 19th century, Americans began to embrace the notion of reformation and penitence for the criminal classes. Yes, they were being punished for their misdeeds, but they were also being purged of their wickedness and restored to health. While the prisoners themselves certainly wouldn’t endorse such a sentiment, prisons were performing a public service.

On the other hand, a privatized prison has almost zero intrinsic interest in the well being of their clients beyond simply not being sued or shutdown. Once a profit motive enters the picture, the health and development of the prisoners themselves becomes inconsequential. Unlike most businesses in the private sector, private prison companies don’t directly receive their profits from the people they serve. Instead, companies like the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group receive all their profits from the federal and state governments who contract them, profits that are derived from the quantity of care provided rather than the quality. The private prison companies are paid a specific amount per day, per prisoner by the government with whom they have a contract, with no monetary incentive to provide appropriate services to the prisoners themselves.

For instance, the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Walnut Grove, Mississippi originally housed around 350 youth inmates in 2001 when it first opened. After being owned and operated by a series of for-profit prison companies, most notably the GEO Group & Cornell Companies, for a decade, the youth inmate population had more than tripled to 1,200 after the Mississippi legislature repeatedly authorized expansion of the facilities and widening of the maximum age of the prisoners from 19 to 22. The motivation for this increase becomes fairly obvious when you consider that at a rate of $31.40 per prisoner per day from the State of Mississippi, their maximum daily profits would have tripled as well. You could counter with the fact that any reasonable human being would hire an equivalent number staff over that time period to cope with the massive increase in the inmate population, but, as you will soon come to realize, no one who gets in the business of locking folk up for cash is a reasonable human being.

A US Department of Justice investigation concerning Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in 2010 highlighted the following disturbing facts:

  • While the number of prisoners they were serving had been markedly increasing, the number of prison staff on the payroll was actually decreasing, with fewer than 250 staff for the more than 1,200 youth inmates. The investigation found that correctional officers were often stretched so thin during the evening and early morning hours that two officers were often responsible for monitoring 128 to 256 incarcerated youth.
  • In part due to this lack of supervision, Walnut Grove was found by the DOJ to be, “deliberately indifferent to staff sexual misconduct,” which they deemed, “was among the worst that [they] have seen in any facility anywhere in the nation.” Over the course of the 10 months, 11 corrections staff were caught sleeping with inmates and were subsequently terminated.
  • The facility was also found to engage in systemic use of excessive force against youth, while showing indifference to and often encouraging youth-on-youth violence. Staff were observed habitually using pepper spray on inmates when it was not warranted and responding to abusive language and passive resistance from inmates by kicking, slapping, punching and slamming youth’s faces into the ground. One particularly sadistic unit manager was documented in an ACLU & Southern Poverty Law Center lawsuit against Walnut Grove as having ordered hits out on a particular inmate by other inmates and falsely telling other youth that this inmate was being incarcerated for rape.
  • Tragically, the physical and mental health needs of the youth inmates were all but ignored by corrections staff, while suicidal threats and ideations were improperly dealt with, ultimately leading to a young man’s death. In 2009, a corrections officer noted that he had found a young man, who had a reported history of depression and suicidal ideation, in his cell with a rope tied around his neck, threatening to kill himself. 10 days after that incident, a nurse who was making a pill call was told by the same young man that he had cut himself and was threatening to do more if he wasn’t let out of his cell. The nurse said that she would take him to the medical unit after she had finished the pill call, which wouldn’t be over for several hours. By the time she returned, the young man’s eyes were dilated and rigor mortis had already set in.

I could go on with examples of the unfathomable negligence and harm directed at these young men, but the Department of Justice’s report was 47 pages long and I have neither the time nor the stomach to document them all for you. Needless to say, Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility more closely resembled Dante’s description of the levels of hell than it did a institution designed to rehabilitate felons. Carlton Reeves, the Federal judge who ruled this past June that the Mississippi Department of Corrections and GEO Group had violated the constitutional rights of the youth who were imprisoned there, said that Walnut Grove was a, “horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.”

And, while an extreme example of the type of mistreatment endemic to for-profit prisons, the 1,200 youth at Walnut Grove–which has since been turned into an adult prison and is now run by Management and Training Company (MTC)–were just a fraction of the 85,000 prison beds that represent the chief domestic revenue stream for the GEO Group today. Within these nearly 85,000 beds lies the key inequity of the private prison system, namely, that these organizations only turn a profit when our nation’s prisons are bursting at the seams with prisoners.

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The youth inmates at Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility faced barbaric, inhumane conditions. photo courtesy of Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Unlike federal and state governments who have a direct financial incentive to reduce prison populations since each prisoner represents tens of thousand of dollars in expenditures, those same prisoners represent revenue for private prison companies. Therefore, it is in the GEO Group’s vested interest to keep every one of their 85,000 beds filled with prisoners while giving them the cheapest care possible to maximize their profit margin, a point underscored by the fact that the starting pay for a guard at Walnut View Youth Correctional Facility was a measly $15,602 a year.  In reality, it actually behooves companies like the GEO Group to release prisoners that are prone to higher rates of recidivism because it means a greater number of repeat customers. Private prisons are financially rewarded for providing sub-standard care and ensuring that our nation’s prison population continues to grow. It would seem that, based off of GEO Group’s most recent financial statements, prisons are still a very lucrative industry, with the company reporting $1.69 billion in total revenue for 2014.

The political class has certainly taken note of the private prison industry’s extensive wealth and the unsavory ways they go about accruing it and will be a big part of the discourse–and funding–of the 2016 presidential elections. For Democrats running for president, relationships with the private prison industry are a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has recently pledged, as part of his campaign’s racial justice platform, to introduce legislation in the Senate that would wipe for-profit prisons from the national landscape. On the other hand Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has taken a combined $175,000 in bundled money from lobbyists from the lobbying firms Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and Capitol Counsel, both of whom also represent for-profit prisons. With Republican candidates the relationship was a little more one-sided, as can be seen in their dealings with the Geo Group.

According to OpenSecrets.org, the Geo Group has accrued more than $1.7 million in lobbying expenditures since 2012–the bulk of which went to Republican candidates–while the company’s own Political Action Committee, the creatively named “The Geo Group, Inc. PAC”, has spent nearly $1 million over the same period, much of it concentrated on the Romney Victory Inc PAC, the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, and a host of Republican candidates for US Congress. Among the congressional candidates targeted by Geo Group, none have been courted as diligently as Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio who has received almost $40,000 in campaign contributions from them over the course of his political career. At the same time, GOP candidates Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal all received money from the company or had money bundled by lobbyists  who work on their behalf.

All of the politicians mentioned above–Bernie Sanders notwithstanding–are taking money that has been tainted to varying degrees with the blood of men, women and children who have been ravaged by corporations who deal in human suffering. Every politician and political organization that accepts the donations of GEO Group and other for-profit prisons is tacitly endorsing the ritualistic abuse of their constituents. In this era of the New Jim Crow, private prisons represent that most mercenary agent of racial injustice. They no longer serve inmates in the hopes of rehabilitating them for re-entry into society; they monitor assets and manage costs to increase their revenue stream. This is what the free market does when given dominion over those who have had their freedoms taken from them–freedoms that will continue to smothered by the for profit prison industry until politicians are elected at the federal, state and local levels whose pockets are not stuffed with their money.