In May of 2009 Derek West Harris, a well-liked barber in Newark, New Jersey, drove an unregistered car. The officer who stopped him discovered a slew of unpaid tickets and Mr. Harris found himself shipped off to a modern debtors’ prison, in this case one posing as a privately run halfway house. Delaney Hall operates under the auspices of the extremely profitable and benignly named Community Education Center, a corporation currently vying to lock up America’s most unwanted. Unfortunately for Mr. Harris, failing to pay his traffic fines wound up being a capital offense.
But, wait. We’re assured there’s no reason to get excited. According to Community Education Center, the demise of a prisoner is an unusual event—which may come as a surprise when you realize how lax the oversight is, that the halls are equipped with nonworking security cameras, and that prisoners remain vulnerable in rooms without locking doors while violent offenders wander the halls after the final count.
A mere four companies have cornered the market on purchasing prisoners according to Prison Legal News. Two in this racket, GEO Group, Inc., and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), sucked up over four billion dollars in pure profit from American taxpayers last year. London Guardian
In 2010, Capitol Weekly reported
In three years, a private-prison construction and management company, the Corrections Corporation of America, has seen the value of its contracts with the state soar from nearly $23 million in 2006 to about $700 million three months ago – all without competitive bidding. Even in a state accustomed to high-dollar contracts, the 31-fold increase over three years is dramatic.During the same period, the company’s campaign donations rose exponentially, from $36,750 in 2006, of which $25,000 went to the state Republican Party, to $233,500 in 2007-08 and nearly $139,000 in 2009. The donations have gone to Democrats, Republicans and ballot measures. The company’s largest single contribution, $100,000, went to an unsuccessful budget-reform package pushed last year by Gov. Schwarzenegger. Capitol Weekly
From the first enactment of the idea, nearly twenty-five years ago, private prisons have been cesspools of scandal. The cause seems obvious. Capitalists minimize costs to maximize profitability, a fundamental maxim of the free enterprise system. When the care and feeding of human beings must be scrimped on to gouge out those unfair shares of the take, somebody’s going to suffer.
A trusting public became aware of some of the pitfalls of supplementing dwindling public funds by selling off prisons and prisoners when, in 2011, two judges in Pennsylvania, Mark Ciavarella (known as “Mr. Zero Tolerance” for his consistency in sentencing everyone who had the misfortune to land in his court) and Michael Conahan, received stiff sentences for selling juvenile defendants to two local for-profit detention centers. In the end the convictions of thousands of juveniles had to be vacated because of the judges’ failure to accord the defendants constitutionally “protected” rights. One young man received three months for being in the company of a shoplifter. Many youths received stiff sentences for schoolyard brawls that, under normal circumstances, would have drawn a warning or perhaps a suspension. No child had hope of being found “not guilty.”
The wedding of politics, prison, and money leads to temptations few of the criminals running our democracy* can resist.
In 2009 two men, allegedly from CCA, showed up in a small Arizona town, close to the Mexican border to pitch the construction of a new prison specifically to house women and children who were illegal immigrants. Local officials were not convinced that the prison could be kept full, but that is, perhaps, because they were unaware that, at the time, CCA was one of the key groups involved in drafting and promoting the Arizona Senate Bill 1070 (which requires police to lock up anyone who cannot prove they came to the US legally), under the auspices of a secretive group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which specializes in model legislation. London Guardian
In an investigative series on Community Education Center, the New York Times uncovered what led to Mr. Harris’s horrific death. While the State of New Jersey chose to whitewash Community Education Center and sentence the three vicious convicts housed with Mr. Harris, the Times reports numerous agency claims of “inspection,” none backed up with a written report. Further, the authorities maintain that Delaney Hall serves as a therapeutic alternative only for nonviolent offenders, yet two of the killers had been transferred back to prison because they were considered “too disruptive”. They were bounced back to Delaney mere days later, a decision prison authorities have yet to explain.
Mr. Harris, screaming as he was kicked to death for the three dollars in his pocket ($17 short of what his attackers demanded), lay in his own blood for at least another ten minutes before one of Delaney’s “counselors” (paid $10 an hour) responded. The nurse the counselor telephoned, one serving 1,200 inmates, took an additional fifteen minutes to arrive. Nevertheless, Delaney Hall received a better-than-passing grade from those who “looked into the matter.”
Essex County in New Jersey has excellent reasons for relaxing barriers to tossing vicious offenders in with those who haven’t paid their traffic fines or were caught smoking a joint.
By placing inmates at Delaney Hall, the county frees beds at its jail. It then earns a significant profit by renting those beds to the federal government to house federal inmates and immigration detainees. About 40 percent of the county jail’s roughly 2,400 beds are now reserved for federal use. NY Times
The Times series focuses on New Jersey and Governor Christie who has ties with Community Education Center. But from California to Florida, private prisons are flourishing. As the Guardian reporter notes, their profits flow into the pockets of those who lobby for courts to be tough on crime. Undocumented workers attract much of the venom.
Although there have been some concerns that any relaxation of sentencing or drug laws might negatively impact their bottom line (profit), they remain confident in their ability to drum up new ways of generating their taxpayer-funded commodities (also known as inmates): lobbying California for their excess prisoners being one; caging juveniles on trivial charges another. But the favorite, by a long shot, is the accelerated drive to lock up America's immigrants.
So far, these strategies seem to be working nicely. In their 2011 third-quarter earnings report, the GEO group proudly announced an increase in profits from the previous year. This joyous news can be at least partially attributed to changes in immigration law, particularly in states like Arizona and Oklahoma, which allow for, among other things, the indefinite detention of illegal immigrants, including those whose asylum proceedings are underway. The majority of immigrants who are picked up by law enforcement officials, mostly on civil charges, like being caught with a broken tail light for instance, will end up in privately run prisons. In many of these facilities, they will be charged $5 per minute to call their loved ones, whilst earning $1 per day for their labor, from which the corporation running the facility will profit. London Guardian
These facts put a new light on the Republican screeching over the President’s recent relaxing of the Federal posture on “illegal immigration.” Sure, it’s an election campaign ploy to stir up the voters against foreigners yet once more, but Obama’s plan, no doubt, will hurt many of the fat cats where they keep all their feelings: in their pockets.
*Will Rogers used to say we had “the best [government] money could buy.” Actually, he said “the best Congress”, but I think he’d agree, post-Citizens United, that the purchasing power of those who used to settle for buying Congress has greatly expanded.
For more information on the efficacy (ha ha) of private prisons, see this academic study: UK Sage Publication