First some bad news, then some good news in the war against privatization.
Justin Jones, former Director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, recently wrote an editorial on the ACLU Blog of Rights slamming lawmakers for enacting policies for the sole purpose of over-incarceration at the behest of private vendors and management companies. He cites in particular a recently passed law that turned a misdemeanor into a felony:
Introducing a cell phone into a correctional facility used to be a misdemeanor in Oklahoma. Now, it’s a felony. This change did not happen for any reason other than a private prison lobbyist provided his client with a good way to make even more revenue off of people already imprisoned. Bumping this crime up from a misdemeanor to a felony means that when a person is caught with a cell phone in prison, he or she will end up staying in prison even longer; in most cases the new sentence will be added to the end of the existing one, instead of allowing people to serve time for both the crime that landed them behind bars and the cell phone infraction simultaneously. More prison time, more profits.
Jones goes on to explain that this bump from misdemeanor to felony is “not smart, evidence-based policy” and it additionally provides “zero public safety value”. He urged the powers that be not to enact the law, but the lobbyists had already appealed to the governor’s base political nature. Financial greed, it seems, is the underpinning of criminal justice policy.
The rationale behind laws elevating cell phone possession to felony status argue that inmates are using them to conduct criminal activity behind bars — which most certainly does occur. But more often, it is for the obvious reason inmates crave other contraband items, such as food and drugs — for purely personal use.
Michigan too, has a law like that in Oklahoma. It was passed in June of 2012 with broad bipartisan support. The penalties in the Michigan version provide a double-whammy of incarceration — it punishes both the inmate and the person who provided them with the phone. Public Act 255 offers the following penalties:
A violation of the Act is a felony punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment, a maximum fine of $1,000, or both.
Michigan is among a number of states that have contracted with the private vendor, Aramark, to provide food services in its prisons. Aramark has been getting some bad press recently over a number of contract breeches, including workers caught smuggling contraband into prisons, and among those forbidden items are cell phones. Under Michigan law, every inmate caught with a phone stands to increase both private vendor profits and the cost to taxpayers. Albeit, the employee is typically acting for personal gain, but their employer could certainly reap the benefit.
Prison communications is big business in itself. Public Communications Services, Inc. is a major vendor of inmate land-line phone service, and they are the only means by which calls can be placed in or out of Michigan’s prisons. Below are their current rates, minus extra fees.
Phone controversies and food providers are only part of the for-profit landscape in our nation’s prisons. Other out-sourced services, such as management, security, maintenance, and laundry are also revenue streams that private vendors tap into to turn a buck off of taxpayers.
Public Policy Slowly Turns Away from Privatization
Yet, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Even some Republican lawmakers are beginning to understand what a drain privatization has become on taxpayer dollars.
Sen. John Proos (R-21) introduced legislation (SB-909) last Thursday that would limit the number of inmates in Michigan’s prisons to 38,000, down from the 44,000 currently allowed. In a WNMU interview, Proos said
“I think the county jails have already proven that they do it for a third to half the cost – on a per-day rate – that the state of Michigan operates its prisons. That’s a significant savings to our hard-working taxpayers.”
“Every dollar saved gives us a chance to invest in schools, — gives us a chance to invest those hardworking taxpayer dollars in areas that we all know will help, in the long run, to keep people out of prison.”
Unfortunately, the bill potentially foists the burden onto local communities, and it also leaves open the possibility for the state to transfer inmates in excess of the limit to “jails and other secure facilities” — which would include privately-run lockups. The final decision-making authority would lie with the Michigan Department of Corrections.
(In related legislation, three bills advanced out of committee today to the Michigan House floor for a vote — all passed, and will move on to the Senate. HB-5216, HB-5217 and HB-5218 would direct the Department of Corrections to evaluate the record of a released prisoner, and issue a “certificate of employability” when appropriate, plus offer limited liability to employers, and compel licensing agencies to consider the certificate alongside the conviction. The legislative package, supported by both parties, is tie-barred — meaning it’s all or nothing.)
In the larger fight against privatization, Justin Jones offers these public policy suggestions on how to “starve the for-profit prison beast”:
- Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences.
- Transfer severely and/or chronically mentally ill prisoners to state agencies responsible for mental health treatment.
- Prohibit “lock-up quota” contracts with private prison companies, in which the jurisdiction promises to send enough prisoners to a private facility to meet a “lock-up quota” or pay the company for falling short of the quota.
- Make probation a real possibility for people convicted of non-violent crimes.
The Atlantic ran an interesting article last week, titled The Privatization Backlash. This should get the attention of fiscal hawks: One-in-six of federal, state and local taxpayer dollars line the pockets of private industry — that’s $1 trillion a year. At long last, that trend is finally coming under scrutiny at all levels.
In states and cities across the country, lawmakers are expressing new skepticism about privatization, imposing new conditions on government contracting, and demanding more oversight. Laws to rein in contractors have been introduced in 18 states this year, and three—Maryland, Oregon, and Nebraska—have passed legislation, according to In the Public Interest, a group that advocates what it calls “responsible contracting”.
Progressives have long reviled for-profit industries taking-over our public institutions, often objecting on ethical grounds, with an understanding that it just doesn’t make budgetary sense either to give-away the store. Now, Republicans are climbing on-board with arguments for fiscal responsibility. It doesn’t matter how they get there, just as long as sensible public policy results.
Industry Divests from Private Vendors
Another front in the war against privatization in prisons is being fought within the private sector. Applying pressure on secondary companies that invest in privatization is showing some promise in limiting growth in the industry.
The civil rights group, Color of Change announced last week that they have successfully pressured three major corporations to divest from private prison companies based on “financial, moral, and political implications”. Scopia Capital, DSM, and Amica Mutual Insurance pulled $60 million in combined investments from two private prison industry giants, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group. From their April 23rd press release:
“The leadership of these companies sets a much needed, powerful new industry standard: investments in private prison companies are unacceptable. What we see here is not simply a fluctuation of stock, but a conscious decision on behalf of major companies to cut ties with private prisons. That’s huge.” explained Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorofChange.org. These companies show that divestment is not only the right thing to do, but also a smart financial decision. Today’s news marks an incredibly exciting step forward in the national movement to end for-profit incarceration.”
Whether talking to Republican lawmakers or corporate bean-counters, the argument against privatization on financial grounds seems to be making some headway.