Private prisons thrive despite repeated failures to justify a costly, dangerous industry

Matt Stroud

I fol­low the Her­itage Foun­da­tion – and a num­ber of oth­er hard-right orga­ni­za­tions and media com­pa­nies – on Twit­ter and Face­book and Feed­ly and wher­ev­er else I can. Though I get teased by my pro­gres­sive friends about this (a friend and jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor in Shang­hai sent a shocked note ear­li­er today: Matt, you like the Media Research Cen­ter????”), it’s worth doing. I like” the MRC on Face­book – as well as Her­itage and Fox News and Human Events, among oth­ers – but for anthro­po­log­i­cal rea­sons. Not only do I get to see what enrages hard­line con­ser­v­a­tives, I also get to observe the very basic mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions and untruths that seem to push peo­ple toward the kind of extreme think­ing that defined the gov­ern­ment shut­down ear­li­er this month. It’s even worth a laugh some­times. (And worth a cry oth­er times.)

While wait­ing for a flight in Philadel­phia on Thurs­day, for exam­ple, I got a laugh out of a Her­itage tweet about the Afford­able Care Act. 

The tweet went like this: The Irony: Pri­vate Sec­tor Asked to Res­cue #Oba­macare Site.” It linked to a Free Enter­prise post dis­cussing how the admin­is­tra­tion’s tech surge” to fix health​care​.gov involved part­ner­ing with Ver­i­zon. This would be a fine anec­do­tal argu­ment for the strength of pri­vate sec­tor com­pe­ti­tion over blun­der­ing gov­ern­ment work. But it com­plete­ly ignores the fact that 55 con­trac­tors helped to build health​care​.gov. Pri­vate firms played as much of a role in the site’s prob­lems as they like­ly will in the site’s suc­cess, in oth­er words. So the sim­plis­tic argu­ment is a com­plete wash; Her­itage’s 58 char­ac­ter mis­sive col­laps­es on itself imme­di­ate­ly. Which is kin­da funny.

I often laugh in the same way when I read argu­ments about whether pri­vate pris­ons should con­tin­ue to exist.

Pri­vate prison com­pa­nies – the few, huge and proud com­pa­nies con­tract­ed to help the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and many states deal with their over­crowd­ed pris­ons – are under attack. The Huff­in­g­ton Post has run a few very good sto­ries recent­ly (par­tic­u­lar­ly this one) about the prob­lems that arise when pris­on­er pop­u­la­tions are attached to Wall Street prof­its. The Atlantic has made sim­i­lar points ref­er­enc­ing pri­vate prison com­pa­nies’ con­nec­tion to immi­gra­tion reform, and The Nation is in the midst of a mar­ket­ing cam­paign with the ACLU and Beyond Bars to bring more atten­tion to the Prison Prof­i­teers” that not only thrive when peo­ple are impris­oned, but that write penal­ties against gov­ern­ments into their con­tracts when enough peo­ple aren’t thrown behind bars. A report in Cincin­nati City Beat about the con­tin­ued fail­ure of the first Ohio prison to be sold to a pri­vate com­pa­ny also hit the web this week, along with more fall­out from the dis­grace­ful con­di­tions dis­cov­ered with­in Ida­ho’s pri­vate pris­ons. Plus, there’s the recent $2.5 mil­lion civ­il set­tle­ment in the wake of the infu­ri­at­ing kids for cash” scan­dal in which two Penn­syl­va­nia judges took kick­backs from a pri­vate prison oper­a­tor to lock up increased num­bers of juveniles.

Since it’s the largest pri­vate prison com­pa­ny in the nation, respon­si­bil­i­ty has fall­en by default to the Nashville-based Cor­rec­tions Cor­po­ra­tion of Amer­i­ca to make some kind of argu­ment in favor of pri­vate pris­ons. And on Wednes­day, in The Ten­nessean, its chief cor­rec­tions offi­cer, Harley Lap­pin, offered Goliath’s side of the sto­ry. CCA has pro­vid­ed mil­lions in sav­ings” to states such as Ten­nessee, he wrote, which was deemed by pub­lic offi­cials to be the most cost effec­tive fol­low­ing a com­pet­i­tive process.” Fur­ther­more: A recent inde­pen­dent study” – which he fails to cite – reviewed state gov­ern­ment data and found that we gen­er­ate more than 17 per­cent in cost sav­ings for Tennessee’s tax­pay­ers. Those are sav­ings that can be used for pub­lic safe­ty and pro­gram­ming to help inmates devel­op the skills and val­ues they need to be successful.”

Like the brief Her­itage argu­ment about the irony of the pri­vate sec­tor’s role in fix­ing health​care​.gov, Lap­pin’s argu­ment has a glim­mer of log­ic to it. If pri­vate prison com­pa­nies are able to pro­vide cost sav­ings over state-run pris­ons with­out putting the lives of pris­on­ers at risk or sub­ject­ing those pris­on­ers to cru­el and unusu­al envi­ron­ments, then, sure, let them work their magic.

But as Alex Fried­mann – a for­mer pris­on­er in a pri­vate prison who now runs the ruth­less and indis­pens­able newslet­ter and web­site, Prison Legal Newsrespond­ed in this morn­ing’s Ten­nessean, Lap­pin’s argu­ment leaves out the facts that ren­der it absurd. It would be fun­ny if it weren’t so egre­gious. Fried­mann points out that CCA’s Ten­nessee con­tract includes con­trac­tu­al bed guar­an­tees’ that com­pen­sate the com­pa­ny for a min­i­mum num­ber of prison or jail beds … even when they’re emp­ty,” which has result­ed in CCA receiv­ing $487,917.27 for vacant beds….” He continued:

Despite this ques­tion­able use of pub­lic funds, Lap­pin con­tends that a recent inde­pen­dent study” found that CCA-run facil­i­ties gen­er­ate more than 17 per­cent in cost sav­ings for Tennessee’s tax­pay­ers.” He also men­tions in pass­ing that the study received sup­port from the pri­vate cor­rec­tions industry.

How­ev­er, he didn’t dis­close that the study, by two Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sors, was in fact part­ly fund­ed by CCA — which makes one won­der whether it is real­ly inde­pen­dent.” In short, Mr. Lap­pin relied on a study, paid for by CCA and oth­er pri­vate prison firms, to sup­port his posi­tion that pri­vate pris­ons are cost-effective.

Oth­er stud­ies, con­duct­ed by gov­ern­ment agen­cies that did not receive fund­ing from CCA and oth­er pri­vate prison com­pa­nies, have found that prison pri­va­ti­za­tion results in few, if any, sav­ings — and may even cost more than pub­licly run prisons.

Mr. Lap­pin also cites CCA’s secure facil­i­ties” and implies that bed guar­an­tees are some­how need­ed to oper­ate pris­ons safe­ly. Tell that to the fam­i­ly of Ger­ald Ewing, who was mur­dered at the CCA-oper­at­ed South Cen­tral Cor­rec­tion­al Facil­i­ty on Sept. 1 dur­ing gang-relat­ed brawls that sent four oth­er pris­on­ers to local hospitals.

CCA’s argu­ment is, in oth­er words, mean­ing­less. Weak. It col­laps­es on itself immediately.

The mis­fired Her­itage argu­ment ref­er­enced above and the fail­ure of CCA’s chief cor­rec­tion offi­cer to defend pri­vate pris­ons show that the hard right and the pri­vate prison indus­try are seem­ing­ly aligned in their inabil­i­ty to prove a point with­out over­look­ing key facts.

But the sad truth is that both orga­ni­za­tions have lit­tle need for reform, lit­tle need for change. Her­itage recent­ly passed 1 mil­lion Likes” on Face­book (many anthro­po­log­i­cal among them, I imag­ine) and still main­tains an $80 mil­lion bud­get. And CCA, with its $4.38 bil­lion mar­ket cap and its stock val­ue con­sis­tent­ly on the rise since 2001, has no one to pla­cate but the politi­cians who con­tin­ue to buy their mis­lead­ing argu­ments on a grand scale.

I have no prob­lem with either of these orga­ni­za­tions doing what they can to make their argu­ment and jus­ti­fy their exis­tence in pub­lic. The First Amend­ment applies to all of us, after all. I just have a prob­lem when these orga­ni­za­tions mis­con­strue facts to prove their points. And I have a prob­lem when the peo­ple who should care – the peo­ple who hand them mil­lions of dol­lars (in tax­pay­er mon­ey, as is the case with CCA and oth­er pri­vate prison com­pa­nies) – appar­ent­ly don’t. 

That’s noth­ing to laugh about.

— — —

Fol­low me on Twit­ter where I post fas­ci­nat­ing infor­ma­tion and news about crime, law enforce­ment, and the prison industry.

Matt Stroud is a for­mer Inno­cence Net­work inves­ti­ga­tor who now cov­ers the U.S. legal sys­tem, in all its glo­ry and ugli­ness, as a free­lance jour­nal­ist. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @ssttrroouudd. Email him at stroudjournalism<at>
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