19 November 2010


PRISON FOR PROFIT. Among the many evils inherent in outsourcing is the lack of quality control. While we usually associate outsourcing with the production of goods, increasingly state and federal governments outsource for services as well -- witness the presence of hundreds of military contractors who provide everything from food to paramilitary troops in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan (see my post from 01 January 2010 on the brutal excesses committed by Blackwater and other mercenary suppliers). Click on the map below to enlarge.

Not all outsourcing happens on foreign soil. In this country, for instance, those convicted of criminal activity may well find themselves serving time in a private, for-profit prison rather than in a state-run prison. In my book, anytime you avoid responsibility for what should be a government-run operation (with standards and oversight provided by our tax dollars), and instead allow a private company operating at a profit to take over, you're asking for trouble. It is the equivalent, as one astronaut famously observed, of risking the space program and the lives of astronauts by sending them up on equipment which was designed and built by the lowest-bidding contractor. In the U.S., private companies (including the GEO Group, Corrections Corporation of America, and Community Education Centers) operate 264 correctional facilities. The cost, measured both in tax dollars and in human lives, is far greater than if the facilites were operated, staffed and inspected by government agencies.

So it comes as no surprise, though it remains egregiously shocking, to learn from the Southern Poverty Law Center that a Federal Lawsuit Reveals Inhumane Conditions at a For-Profit Youth Prison. Juvenile inmates at Mississippi's Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, operated by the GEO Group, the second largest private prison company in the nation, have systematically been "forced to live in barbaric and unconstitutional conditions and are subjected to excessive uses of force by prison staff." Those abusive conditions include being raped by staff, incurring serious and permanent injuries from staff beatings, being sold drugs by staff, and being blinded with chemical restraints.

I spent four years in eastern Tennessee working with youthful offenders, boys convicted of everything from burglary to drugs to stealing cars to murder. All of their crimes were felonies. They had served their time in juvenile detention, and in the group home where I worked, were acquiring skills and mindsets to allow them to reassimilate into society. My official title was security officer, but I was also a de facto counselor, spending hours talking with individuals and groups (including gang members), helping them to find a different path in life.

Only a tiny minority of these wannabe thugs were irredeemably hardcore. Most were kids who had hung out with the wrong crowd (or were brought up in the wrong family), and most were willing to turn their lives around. I'm here to testify that the barbaric excesses of Neanderthal staff have no possible justification. It is those staff who should be in prison -- as well as their corporate employers.

Small wonder that I regard outsourcing with a jaundiced eye.

CHEATING. Crime comes in all forms, some of them nearly invisible. One pernicious form of wrongdoing has been spreading among our nation's schools and universities in recent years -- cheating on classwork and exams. A video making the rounds on YouTube, and an accompanying article titled 200 Students Admit Cheating After Professor's Online Rant, provide the details at one school, describing the behavior of the students of one professor. "In the lecture, Professor Richard Quinn told the class he had enough evidence from statistical analysis and other investigatory techniques to identify most cheats, but instead of handing the list over to university authorities for disciplining, he proposed a deal .... 'you can either wait it out and hope that we don't identify you, or you can identify yourself to your lab instructor, complete the course, and receive the grade you earned in the course." Those who chose to come forward were also required to take a four-hour course in ethics. By doing so, there would be no permanent record of their cheating.

200 students in one professor's classes. Extrapolate to the entire university, and to all middle schools, high schools and universities, and doesn't that begin to sound like an epidemic?

I truly do not grasp the temptation. Not once during my academic career did I ever cheat. The intent of school is to impart knowledge, and to test the retention of that knowledge through exams. To cheat in class or on exams is defeating the purpose entirely. It is small wonder that our youth perform abyssmally on standardized tests in the most basic skills (language, math and science) -- not only compared to students from other nations, but also compared to U.S. students from ten, twenty or forty years ago. Our youth are functionally illiterate. The system is broken.

We need higher, not lower, standards. We need teachers who are retained based on performance, not on tenure. We need parents who involve themselves in their childrens' education, every step of the way. We need administrators who back their instructors in enforcing a code of ethics. We need more, not less, financial support for schools from our tax dollars. And we need a society which itself models not only ethical behavior, but also a hunger for knowledge and discovery. Without these things, our culture will dissipate. It has already begun to do so.

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