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July 2, 2010

"How The Recession Hurts Private Prisons"

The title of this post is the headline of this Newsweek feature.  Here is how the interesting piece gets started:

Baldwin, Mich., (population 1,107), will soon have more prison beds than full-time residents. On the outskirts of town, one of the country’s largest private prison companies recently spent $60 million to expand a former juvenile prison into a 1,755-bed facility meant to house illegal immigrants before deportation.  This is the same town where every summer locals gather for a carnival nicknamed Troutarama at which teenage girls vie for the crown of Ms. Lake County. Thirty-two percent of Baldwin’s families live below the poverty line, in a state with a 13.6 percent unemployment rate, compared to the national unemployment rate of 9.7 percent.  Baldwin residents were counting on the private prison to create jobs, but this past March, the federal government pulled back its funding on the bid.  This left the Geo Group, Inc., with an empty fortress in the middle of rural Michigan, 85 miles north of Grand Rapids.

A similar scenario is playing out across the country, in states such as California, Oklahoma, and Colorado, where entire private prisons now sit vacant.  The Huerfano County Correctional Facility in Colorado and the Diamondback Correctional Facility in Oklahoma temporarily shut their doors this spring after the state of Arizona stopped sending prisoners out of state in an effort to save money. Cornell Companies, one of the three largest private prison operators in the U.S., expects two of its California prisons to remain empty through 2010, while 11,600 of Correction Corporation of America’s beds were unoccupied as of early May.  The empty prisons are not a result of the number of inmates dropping. In fact, according to the Pew Public Safety Performance Project, the number of inmates rose in 2007 in Arizona, Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Florida.  Instead, the empty beds are because state corrections agencies are crowding prisoners into more facilities as they do in California, or trying to change legislation to make sentencing less harsh for nonviolent criminals.  The private prison industry’s reliable mix of housing state and federal inmates and illegal immigrants — a model that helped to fuel two decades of growth — is no longer a surefire way to get rich. “There are only so many places you can find people,” says Martin F. Horn, a former commissioner with the New York City Department of Correction and a lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Though it’s certainly not disappearing and there are signs of a potential recovery for the sector, the private corrections business is under financial pressure to change its business plan, and as that happens, prison advocates worry that the industry and it’s bottom-line approach will come to dominate other areas of the justice system.  Rather than worrying about upping the number of inmates, private prison companies are tapping into overseas markets and offering a wider range of services.  GEO increased its revenue by $20.2 million in the last year by opening up prisons in Australia and the United Kingdom, while also eyeing contracts in South Africa and New Zealand.  Cornell runs halfway houses and youth prisons and has noticed an uptick in the demand for drug treatment, housing, or job placement programs that help prisoners reenter society.  “The challenge for reentry is funding,” says James Hyman, CEO and president of Cornell Companies.  “If states can’t fund programs for their star college graduates, how do they fund programs for the prisoners?”

July 2, 2010 at 11:34 PM | Permalink


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Private prisons are morally repugnant.

Posted by: wishful | Jul 4, 2010 12:32:30 AM

This was a great piece by Newsweek covering one of the lesser-known side effects of prison privatization. Aside from the ethical issues inherent to incarcerating human beings for profit (yes, private prisons are definitely morally repugnant), these facilities are notorious for cutting corners in areas like staffing, maintenance, programming, and medical care. They contribute to the campaigns of politicians and promote model legislation that aims to get "tough on crime," literally encouraging state and federal lawmakers to hand down tougher and tougher penalties for mostly non-violent offenses, which has contributed to our country's massive explosion of prison beds over the past four decades. There are 2 and a half million people in prison, literally moer than 1% of our adult population, and private prisons have been the direct beneficiaries of our prison industrial system, which costs American taxpayers nearly $70 billion per year. Companies like CCA and GEO claim they can save money over government-run institutions, but multiple studies of facilities in various states have repeatedly debunked that myth. There's really not a single redeeming quality about this entire terrible industry.

For way more information on how private prisons are robbing taxpayers and destroying lives, check out http://whyihatecca.blogspot.com.

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