28 March 2011


PRISON SCANDAL. I've been a critic of private, for-profit prisons for a long time. Privatizing government services is a profligate waste of taxpayer money, and provides services that are questionable at best, corrupt at worst, and whose core function is to line the pockets of corporate officers and stockholders, with little or no oversight. Outsourcing is a perfect example of the horrific results of conservative ideology take to its logical conclusion.

NPR recently aired a two-part series on private prisons. The first part examines a youth correctional facility in Mississippi -- a place where conditions are so violent and out of control that "the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU have file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 13 inmates against the prison operator, GEO Group .... [alleging] rampant contraband brought in by guards, sex between female guards and male inmates, inadequate medical care, prisoners held inhumanely in isolation, guards brutalizing inmates, and inmate-on-inmate violence that was so brutal it led to brain damage."

The guards themselves are a big part of the problem. Beyond inadequate numbers, training and oversight, many corrections officers are themselves members of gangs. Governmental correctional facilities have their problems, and are in dire need of reform. But private, for-profit facilities are not in the business of rehabilitation or even humane punishment -- they are in the business of making money. Period. So while guard-to-inmate ratios of 1 officer to 10 juvenile prisoners are common in state facilities, in private facilities the ratios can dip to 1 officer in 60 prisoners ... all in the interest of shaving costs, but at the expense of safety and humane treatment.

The second part of the NPR series focuses on the impact on communities in Texas, where the private prison industry is a $3 billion enterprise. After a 20 year boom cycle, the industry in parts of the country has begun to shrink, leaving entire communities with increased unemployment and no good options. "According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the total correctional population in the United States is declining for the first time in three decades. Among the reasons -- the crime rate is falling, sentencing alternatives mean fewer felons doing hard time, and states everywhere are slashing budgets."

Here is how the cycle plays out. For any town contemplating hosting a private prison, "The packages look sweet. A town gets a new detention center without costing the [local] taxpayers anything. The private operator finances, constructs, and operates an oversized facility. The contract inmates pay off the debt and generate extra revenue. The economic model works fine until they can't find inmates."

I had the opportunity to work in the Tennessee juvenile corrections system for five years. Training was thorough and professional, with annual retraining. I worked in a Department of Childrens Services boys group home -- something like a halfway house for juvenile felons who had served their time, and were being prepared for reentry into society and their families. Part of our function was security, and part was counseling. My fellow officers and my superiors were all qualified, dedicated individuals who worked as a team to help our boys follow a more positive path in life. This is an example of government fulfilling its rightful role responsibly. There is no justification for avoiding that responsibility by relegating juvenile or adult offenders to a for-profit prison.

ESCAPED COBRA. Ha. Imagine being a visitor to the Bronx Zoo and coming across the following sign: "The World of Reptiles is closed today. Staff observed an adolescent Egyptian cobra missing from an 0ff-exhibit enclosure on Friday." Oops. Cobra on the loose. Keep an eye out for your ankles, indeed.

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