All That is Wrong With Private Prisons

A friend of mine called me last week from prison. We hadn’t spoken in a few months, so we did a lot of catching up, mostly talking about how things were at the prison, friends, and the many turns my own life has taken.

I told him that a mutual friend of ours was at the new private prison in Milledgeville, Ga., a place called Riverbend Correctional Facility. He groaned and told me he had heard only bad things about the place. Dozens of the most troublesome inmates at his prison had been sent to Milledgeville to populate the 1,500-bed facility run by the GEO group.

All three of us had been at another prison in Milledgeville, a town well known for prisons and mental hospitals. During the last decade, four of the area’s five prisons have been closed, leading to thousands of lost jobs in a region without a lot of alternatives. When the GEO Group announced a few years ago the company would be building the facility, the news was happily received by many in the community. GEO, formerly Wackenhut, operates private prisons, immigration detention centers, and mental health facilities in the United States, South Africa, Australia, and the United Kingdom. It is one of several bigplayers in the private detention business. Crime is good for business.

I am relieved that I have never had to serve time in a private prison, because I have always found the idea of monetizing human suffering repugnant. These companies are masters at it. The GEO Group, and corporations like it, are invested in continuing mass incarceration. These businesses actively work to ensure that it will continue. The 10 – K form that GEO submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission named as a potential problem,…” reductions in crime rates [that] could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities.”

They have also inserted themselves into the controversy about immigration. The filing continues. “Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.” An NPR investigative report showed that private prison companies essentially wrote Arizona’s notorious anti-immigrant legislation, with the purpose of creating more detainees that needed to be housed. This is a profit motive gone wild.

Blatant corruption often accompanies private prisons. The notorious Kids for Cash scandal in Pennsylvania was a scheme concocted by a privately-owned youth prison and two juvenile judges to fill the prison up, even if the kids did not deserve to be there.

The latest disgrace of the industry is the withdrawal of GEO from management of four Mississippi youth prisons, most notably the facility at Walnut Grove. As reported by NPR, “Federal Judge Carlton Reeves wrote that the youth prison ‘has allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate, the sum of which places the offenders at substantial ongoing risk.’” A report by the Justice Department found that staff was having sexual relations with inmates at a level seldom seen in the country. Additional findings included deliberate indifference to inmate on inmate sexual violence, beatings and possession of weapons. Guards were found to have used excessive force, and many had known gang affiliations.

The market cannot deliver all services, and the actions of these groups are an excellent example of that. Only the government, as the agent of the citizenry, can carry out certain actions that best serve society. Allowing corporations, whose guiding interestis the bottom line, to take on a task of such importance is madness. The results will be continued corruption, poor treatment of inmates (including children), and no commitment to reducing recidivism. As problematic as government-run prisons are, they have private prisons beat hands down.


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