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August 27, 2009

What should we take away from the latest private prison scandal?

The New York Times reported yesterday on the latest private prison scandal in this piece headlined "Hawaii to Remove Inmates Over Abuse Charges."  Here are some of the details:

Hawaii prison officials said Tuesday that all of the state’s 168 female inmates at a privately run Kentucky prison will be removed by the end of September because of charges of sexual abuse by guards. Forty inmates were returned to Hawaii on Aug. 17....

Otter Creek is run by the Corrections Corporation of America and is one of a spate of private, for-profit prisons, mainly in the South, that have been the focus of investigations over issues like abusive conditions and wrongful deaths. Because Eastern Kentucky is one of the poorest rural regions in the country, the prison was welcomed by local residents desperate for jobs.

Hawaii sent inmates to Kentucky to save money. Housing an inmate at the Women’s Community Correctional Center in Kailua, Hawaii, costs $86 a day, compared with $58.46 a day at the Kentucky prison, not including air travel. 

Hawaii investigators found that at least five corrections officials at the prison, including a chaplain, had been charged with having sex with inmates in the last three years, and four were convicted....

The private prison industry has generated extensive controversy, with critics arguing that incarceration should not be contracted to for-profit companies.  Several reports have found contract violations at private prisons, safety and security concerns, questionable cost savings and higher rates of inmate recidivism.  “Privately operated prisons appear to have systemic problems in maintaining secure facilities,” a 2001 study by the Federal Bureau of Prisons concluded.

Those views are shared by Alex Friedmann, associate editor of Prison Legal News, a nonprofit group based in Seattle that has a monthly magazine and does litigation on behalf of inmates’ rights. “Private prisons such as Otter Creek raise serious concerns about transparency and public accountability, and there have been incidents of sexual misconduct at that facility for many years,” Mr. Friedmann said.

But proponents say privately run prisons provide needed beds at lower cost.  About 8 percent of state and federal inmates are held in such prisons, according to the Justice Department. “We are reviewing every allegation, regardless of the disposition,” said Lisa Lamb, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Corrections, which she said was investigating 23 accusations of sexual assault at Otter Creek going back to 2006....

In July, Gov. Linda Lingle of Hawaii, a Republican, said that bringing prisoners home would cost hundreds of millions of dollars that the state did not have, but that she was willing to do so because of the security concerns. Prison overcrowding led to federal oversight in Hawaii from 1985 to 1999. The state now houses one-third of its prison population in mainland facilities.

The pay at the Otter Creek prison is low, even by local standards. A federal prison in Kentucky pays workers with no experience at least $18 an hour, nearby state-run prisons pay $11.22 and Otter Creek pays $8.25. Mr. Friedmann said lower wages at private prisons lead to higher employee turnover and less experienced staff.

Obviously, this piece reveals yet another piece of the broader stories surrounding the modern prison economy in lean budget times.  But it also raises distinct questions about the potential virtues and vices of private prison facilities that now hold around 200,000 prisoners all around the United States.  Given the size and scope of this industry, I am disappointed (though not really surprised) that we do not hear more debates and see more research on the entire private prison approach to corrections.

August 27, 2009 at 11:36 AM | Permalink


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What we should take away from this debate is that imprisonment for profit simply does not work. Whether it is the private prison industry whose objective is to make as much and spend as little money as possible or the local sheriff who can keep the money he does not spend on feeding prisoners, the incentive system promotes behavior which is counterproductive for the prisoners and for the rest of society.

In addition, having poorly paid and poorly trained people guarding prisoners is a recipe for disaster. Surely the Stanford prison experiments showed how easy it is for supposedly "normal" people placed in a prison situation to start mistreating prisoners.

Lastly, I am a woman, and I'm all for equal opportunity, but isn't having a bunch of men guarding women (and, for that matter, women guarding men) just plain STUPID?

Posted by: disillusioned layman | Aug 27, 2009 1:24:20 PM

I'm not a fan of prison for profit, but on the assumption it's here to stay at least for the time being I think the more practical takeaway is this: Too many jurisdictions have turned to private prisons to save money and failed to invest adequately in on-the-ground oversight and contract compliance to ensure they're getting what they pay for.

Ideally there should be multiple full-time staff employed by the contracting entity at each private facility whose sole job is monitoring and documenting compliance. Instead, especially at very rural units, often they just dump them out there and may not even provide basic programming the state, etc., supposedly requires by law (that happened with Idaho inmates housed in a Geo unit in Texas). What's more, those compliance officers should be barred from taking a job in the private prison industry for five years after they leave their current post.

This crops up over and over. These guys too often just don't have anybody grading their papers, or if they do it's some corrupt sycophant who's looking to be employed soon by the very company they're supposed to be regulating.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Aug 27, 2009 4:45:58 PM

It is a shame what has happened at that facility, however, CCA (Corrections Corporation of America)does take allegations like these extremely seriously. The Corporate CEO's are doing everything in their power at this time to correct any deficiencies that this facility has. The private industry has many GOOD facilities with top notch security, maybe some of the best. Being private, the industry is highly scrutinized. Many of the state facilities throughout the country are plagued with similar
instances, the public just does not get to hear about them as much, as it is a government entity. I agree and welcome any state that provides contract monitors to the facilities and agree, they should be onsite. As in any entity, private or not, there will be those that abuse their powers.
Those that abuse their powers given to them should be prosecuted. With that said, if this facility, after all is said and done, becomes a much better one, and those who are justly prosecuted, then we all win. To those who were violated, I speak for many when I say, I am sorry this happened.

Posted by: concrete Jungleman | Aug 27, 2009 9:04:32 PM

The sexual assaults at Otter Creek, KY are not new. This facility with poorly trained and underpaid staff has been plagued with problems since it reopened in 2005. Hawai`i sent our women there in October 2005 and before the end of that year three Hawai`i women were rushed to the hospital and one woman, Sarah Ah Mau, died on December 31, 2005. KY law deems sex assault a misdemeanor, so many of the perpetrators are receiving light sentences to avoid being listed on the sex offender registry. I must respectfully disagree with Jungleman, who says private facilities are highly scrutinized. THEY ARE NOT. Public facilities surely have their problems, but at least the public has access to records through state law. Punishment for profit is a BAD idea.

Posted by: Advocate | Aug 27, 2009 9:52:41 PM

One may find misconduct at the margins in every human enterprise. Overall, contractors run a tight ship.

The lawyer profession distinguishes itself. It has an insurrection against the Constitution at its core. It uses the Catechism for its terminology, methods, and borrows from the Dominican Order Inquisition business plan. Even the adversarial process is a Scholasticist method of finding the truth. It is anti-scientific, but lucrative, rent seeking, Medieval garbage. It has no validity. It does not even have any reliability measures. The incompetence of the lawyer is awful and outrageous. Scholasticist methodology is unlawful in our secular nation, and idiotic in our 21st Century nation. Nothing from the 1200's AD is of any use in any practice today.

The idiot, psychotic lawyer has nothing to say about any other enterprise, being an idiot, psychotically delusional, and an internal traitor against the Constitution, dealing himself total immunity.

Back to contract prisons, not run by the CCA, but by another company with a great letterhead logo, the globe with bars across it (since changed). The Supremacy has gazed on many wonders inside a private contract prison. One included brazen, heated make out sessions in the many hallways he roamed, between female prisoners and male guards. They continued in the presence of a passing stranger, totally unafraid, and without interruption. Stranger kept walking, and said nothing. No matter how attractive and needy a female prisoner might be, the Supremacy has never even considered ever being tempted to exchange body fluids with the gems incarcerated inside. And bet on it, attractive is rare. Attractive does not have to commit crimes to have needs fulfilled. The guards are nuts, and their comeuppance will be delivered by natural consequences.

There were many sights, hilarious and wondrous in their strangeness, every day in a contract prison.

The Supremacy ran, not walked, from that job, despite the markedly above average pay and powers that came with it.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 28, 2009 12:15:53 AM

Seriously I think if the state doesn't have the beds to house an inmate it sentenced to prison they should not be housed in another state. Real simple, find some other way to deal with them, like let the nonviolent's in for life style and mental health issues out into diversion programs. It would be effective to let a state know there is a limit to the "numbers" of people it can lock up. Capacity is capacity. The US has 2.4 million people in prison. That is an insanely high precentage of the population. Logically as more and more laws and mandatory sentencing are put on the books with each year, more and more people will be locked away. As the war on drugs, and other various campaigns are aggressively pursued it can only mean more people go to jail. Just baseline mental health disorders in an increasing population will trip more people into the criminal category increasing incarceration. Also I don't think its healthy having another state gaurding someone else's prisoners because their rights will be trampled on more freely. That is just natural. Look what we did in Abu Garhib.

Posted by: Brian | Aug 29, 2009 9:07:10 PM

Abuse of prisoners by guards and other inmates is so commonplace that it hardly merits one more article. With 2.3 million people incarcerated, is it conceivable that serious abuse occurs fewer than 2000 times per day? After all, even that is under 1/10th of 1% of all the inmates. If that is the abuse rate, prisons are safer than the wealthiest sections of the wealthiest cities in America.

Posted by: Sidney Gendin | Sep 1, 2009 11:52:24 AM

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