Aug. 25, 2016 By Jack Jodell.
To its credit, the Obama administration’s Department of Justice announced last week that it was soon ending its reliance on private prisons to house federal inmates. As one who has opposed private, for-profit prisons since I first learned of them, this was very welcome and long overdue news indeed!
Shane Bauer, a superb investigative journalist who has written several articles critical of the for-profit prison industry for Mother Jones, actually spent 4 months working
undercover as a prison guard at a Louisiana for-profit prison owned by Correction Corporation of America, is no stranger to prisons: he and two other Americans were booked on phony spying charges by the Iranian government after they had mistakenly hiked into Iranian territory along the Iraq-Iran border in 2009. He, his future wife Sarah Shourd, and and fellow hiker Josh Fattal were convicted of espionage on trumped-up charges and spent well over a year in a brutal Iranian prison. Their conviction and imprisonment caused an international furor, with President Obama, Desmond Tutu, Kenan Thompson, Muhammad Ali, Noam Chomsky, Ashton Kutcher, Tom Morello, Alyssa Milano, rapper Big Sean, Yusuf Islam (the former Cat Stevens), Sean Penn, plus many other celebrities and governments calling for their release on grounds of lack of evidence and inhumane treatment.
Bauer’s articles revealed many appalling incidences of neglect and abuse permeating this for-profit industry. He began just as an escape was made, and, during his 4 month tenure, witnessed stabbings and beatings and evidences of shoddy health care for the prisoners. He said, in a Mother Jones interview, “I met a prisoner who had no legs and no fingers. He had lost them within the past year to gangrene. His medical records showed that he had made at least nine requests to see a doctor in that time. He would go to the infirmary and get sent back; the staff was
suggesting that he was faking it. He said he showed the warden his feet, which were turning black and dripping with pus. But CCA had to pay to take a prisoner to the hospital, which costs a lot of money, especially when you consider it made $34 a day for each prisoner.” He continued,
“There was one full-time social worker for 1,500 inmates … and a part-time psychiatrist and part-time psychologist. The social worker said they typically would get to see any given inmate once a month. Another option available for prisoners with serious problems was suicide watch. If a prisoner said he was suicidal, he would get put on suicide watch, which essentially is a solitary cell.”
Bauer related how, after the successful escape had occurred, “Some buses showed up one day with guards and wardens from public prisons around Louisiana, and they took over. The message seemed to be, ‘We’re gonna need to show you how to run this prison.’ Everything felt different when they were there. The prisoners reacted really differently to them. Normally there was a constant testing of boundaries with the guards, but when these DOC (Department of Corrections) guards came in, they’d say something and everyone did it.”
Bauer’s account seems to corroborate with what the Department of Justice found: that this reliance on these private, for-profit institutions was no longer necessary and was actually more costly, in some cases, than using public prisons. In a related, earlier Huffington Post article by Gabrielle Canon entitled Here’s the Latest Evidence of How Private Prisons Are Exploiting Inmates for Profit from Mother Jones dated July 22, 2015, it was stated that “Researcher Anita Mukherjee studied eight years of data from Mississippi, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and found that private prisons there doled out twice the amount of infractions against inmates, lengthening their sentences by an average of two or three months. The extra time, Mukherjee found, adds up to an increase of about $3,000 in additional costs per prisoner. Mukherjee also noted that inmates housed in private prisons were more likely to wind up back in the system after being released—despite industry claims of lower recidivism rates…The study, which compares length of stays in private and public prisons, is not the first to highlight strategies undertaken by the private prison industry to raise returns for stockholders. Last year, Christopher Petrella, a researcher at the University of California-Berkeley, accused the Corrections Corporation of America of including provisions in its contracts with governments to keep the most costly inmates—those with health issues—from being transferred to its prisons. Through open records requests, Petrella found there were 14 different exclusion criteria, including disabled or elderly inmates, those who were HIV-positive, or anyone with ‘sensitive medical conditions and/or high risk diagnoses.’ “
While we may tout ourselves as “the land of the free,” a much more accurate phrase would be “the land of the incarcerated.” For, while we have only about 5% of the world’s population, the United States has almost 25 percent of the prisoners in the entire world! Hundreds of thousands of people are jailed because they could not afford to pay off fines, or were convicted of a nonviolent drug or property crime – not due to any menacing behavior. Unfortunately, most of these people are either poor or people of color. Ignorant, intolerant, reactionary and authoritarian Republicans clamor for more police but also foolishly stand squarely against any legislation that would restrict the sales of cheap handguns or semiautomatic rifles. In the face of increasing gun sales to criminals or violent and deranged persons who should never own any type of gun, NO number of additional police could guarantee safety to anyone. It is no wonder that police are often overly trigger happy and will shoot to kill at the slightest provocation. Regrettably, there are no clear solutions in sight, and shootings, mass shootings, and gun deaths continue to rise… This latest step by the Obama administration to phase out these for-profit private prisons is a most welcome step. While it will not stop ongoing violence, it should definitely curb the greed which is turning us into a penitentiary state and bring us closer to the land of the free we love to boast about.
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