Nel's New Day

May 19, 2012

Prisons Move Back Two Centuries

Two-hundred years ago, people went to squalid, crowded prisons for such minor acts as owing money where they were required to pay for their own food. The United States is going full circle back to those days. Despite the fact that states have taken money away from education to pay for prisons, the privatization of these facilities is turning them back into early nineteenth-century penal institutions.

The 1833 law banning debtors prisons in this country left a loophole for over one-third of the states. The law does not permit arresting people for not paying bills, but debt collectors can file lawsuits, sending people to prison for not paying legal fines or failing to show up for court hearings. Many of these people in prison don’t even know that they are not compliant with the law because collection agencies give them no notification of their debt collecting. Sometimes, against the law, these agencies partner with police to either pay their bills or go to jail.  

Lisa Lindsay, a breast cancer survivor, ended up in jail after receiving an erroneous medical bill for $280. Because she was assured that she didn’t owe the money, she didn’t pay it. After being assured that she didn’t owe the money, she ignored the payment requests. The collection agency took over; police handcuffed her at home and took her to jail. After this case and many others in Illinois, the state House of Representatives passed a bill forbidding such action, but after over six months the state Senate has still not acted on this bill. What happened to Lindsay? She paid $600 that she didn’t owe so that she wouldn’t go to prison.

Robin Sanders was pulled over for a loud muffler and taken to jail on a warrant for failure to appear. Although she owed $730 on a medical bill, she didn’t know that a collection agency had filed a lawsuit against her. “They say they send out these court notices, and nobody gets them,” Sanders said. There was no Illinois law to keep her from going to prison.

Sean Matthews, a homeless New Orleans construction worker, owed $498. His six months in jail cost the city six times that much. He was lucky: other debtors are required to pay for their jail times themselves.

In Kansas City, a man went to jail for missing one furniture payment. Indiana, Washington, and Tennessee are only a few of the states with surprise arrests for unpaid debt. To make paying bills more difficult, some states add fees to debtors; Florida collectors can require a 40-percent surcharge from late debtors.

The Federal Trade Commission received more than 140,000 complaints related to debt collection in 2010 and took 10 debt collection agencies to court for their shyster practices in the past three years.

People in prison can’t earn enough money to pay their debts which makes getting out of debt almost impossible. Leaving them in prison then costs taxpayers money, and debtors have more trouble getting housing and employment if they get out, forcing them into state welfare programs.

That doesn’t change the policies of keeping them in prison, but states do get creative about saving money while keeping people in prison. In Texas, the prisons stopped serving lunch on weekends; instead prisoners get two meals on Saturdays and Sundays for the past month.

The most popular method of cheaper prisons, however, might be privatizing them. Prisons are a big profit maker. The nation’s largest private prison company, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), has sent letters to 48 states, offering to buy their prisons outright. With $250 million, they can afford it. The catch is that the prisons must be kept at least 90 percent full for a profit.

CCA also demands a 20-year management contract plus the profits they will extract by spending less money per prisoner. They need that guarantee because with crime declining during the past 20 years, so has the number of inmates. By becoming both owner and manager of a large number of prisons, CCA can set prices without open-bid competition for prison services, creating a monopoly similar to that between the Pentagon and the military-industry complex.

Investors in CCA also have a vested interest in keeping people in prison: profits shrink if the number of prisoners declines. CCA warns them that dangers to profitability include “relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices, or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.” The corporation spells it out: “any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.” CCA is telling its share-holders how to vote to keep up the price of their stocks.

Thus far, CCA is doing quite well. Last year, taxpayers paid them $74 per person to run immigration detention centers. The biggest facility, the one in Lumpkin (GA), pays CCA $200 a night for each of the 2,000 detainees, and CCA annually collects between $35 and $50 million in profits.

Part of their profits come from extorting prisoners. Although the detained immigrants make only $1 a day, CCA charges them $5 a minute for use of the phones to talk with lawyers and other people. CCA also saves money by shorting prisoners on food. One woman reported that she had to deposit money for her diabetic husband to buy enough food.

Part of CCA’s profits goes into lobbying, $14.8 million in the last few years pushing for anti-immigration laws to ensure that they keep getting inmates. CCA contributed money to pass the anti-immigration laws in Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia because they own immigrant-detention facilities in those states.

CCA has another excellent reason for wanting to purchase prisons. By owning these institutions, they own the people inside. They will be in charge, taking over inmates’ human rights—or lack thereof. In 37 states, CCA virtually sells inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM. A million prisoners are now making office furniture, working in call centers, fabricating body armor, taking hotel reservations, working in slaughterhouses, or manufacturing textiles, shoes, and clothing, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day. (Tell Rep. John Boehner or Mitt Romney where the jobs are going!)

With the highest incarceration rate of any country, the United States holds 25 percent of all the prisoners on the planet: 2.3 million people—6 million by counting everyone in some form of incarceration or in the parole and probation process. That’s two out of every 100 people in the United States. And every year, about 13 million people in this country spend some time in jail or prison for at least a short time. That’s over four out of every 100 people in the nation.

The number skyrocketed with Ronald Reagan as president when African-Americans became imprisoned in increasingly disproportionate numbers. The numbers of people in prisons can only grow if the country continues on its pattern of austerity, union-breaking, sweatshop labor, coercion of desperate people to accept lower wages, and part-time or temporary work with no healthcare and retirement benefits.

The prisons in Arizona prove what a failure CCA is. According to Arizona law, the state may contract for private prisons only if they are cheaper. The state’s study showed that CCA was more expensive. Arizona’s solution was to bury a plan to “eliminate the requirement for a quality and cost review of private prison contracts” in the $8.6 billion budget proposal.

The study would have shown that bad security allowed three inmates escape from the Kingman facility, kill an Oklahoma couple, and burn their bodies in their trailer. And that wasn’t the only problem that the study would have revealed. Paul Senseman, Gov. Jan Brewer’s Chief of Staff, is a former lobbyist for CCA, and his wife currently lobbies for CCA. Chuck Coughlin, Brewer’s chief adviser, runs a consulting firm that represents CCA. The three of them contributed $60,000 to her 2010 campaign.

The privatization of prisons comes from small-government advocates who support companies only interested in making a profit with no concern for social consequences. The unnecessary harm to minor offenders, hardening of minor offenders into serious criminals, and calls for more draconian law enforcement and punishment leads to the need for more and more prisons and the drain from education that can create a more civilized society. And it only gets worse. In Pennsylvania, a private detention company bribed two judges to order youths imprisoned, just so there would be more fodder for private prisons.

Studies show that private facilities perform badly compared to public ones on almost every metric—prevention of intra-prison violence, jail conditions, rehabilitation efforts—except reducing state budgets and adding to the corporate bottom line. And the country is heading toward privatization of all its prisons.

Possibly worse is the for-profit prisons set up for kids. Read this if your stomach is up to it.


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