By Audrey Conklin
The call to terminate all private prisons in the United States has been a popular discussion point for 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.
Candidates currently serving states that actively use private prisons, such as Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, are calling for the end of the multi-billionaire private prison industry in the U.S.
States must also reach bed quotas with private prison companies they partner with. If states do not meet quotas to fill the majority of beds at private prisons they sign contracts with, those states are required to pay fees that can reach millions of dollars. In Arizona, for example, the state did not reach a 97% bed quota with a private prison in 2011 and had to pay a $3 million fee.
Candidates and other experts argue that this practice leads to mass incarceration in the U.S., the Sentencing Project reported in 2018.
A 2019 UCLA study found that “private prisons impact criminal sentencing because they reduce the cost of imprisonment to the state, and judges take account of this.”
However, some experts argue private prisons can help these states alleviate the burdens of an overcrowded prison system, in which public facilities can’t handle the volume.
“Each state or local jurisdiction that utilizes private prison operation has its own unique financial circumstances, characteristics, and human service needs. Private contractors help meet needs in ways that are economically sound, timely and meet required standards of care,” prison litigation expert Dr. Victor Lofgreen told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
“These goals are difficult to meet through standard governmental funding and capital building procedures,” he added.
Private facilities house less than 8% of inmates nationwide — down from but detain over 70% of the immigrant detention population, more than 26,000 people, as the DCNF previously reported, citing the Sentencing Project.
The candidates cite profit incentives for imprisoning people and reports of unsafe conditions as their reasoning behind calls to ban private centers, even though the states they represent depend on them when public prison conditions don’t suffice due to large inmate populations.
Lofgreen explained that research on private vs. public prisons “has been relatively thin, and no definitive studies have concluded that either public or private prison management is superior. Differences in budgeting, accounting, and program evaluation methods have made it difficult to compare public and private prison management results.”
He added that “private organizations can respond to changing needs more rapidly than can governmental organizations; allow capital development by private financing by paying the costs through the government’s operating budget; create a more flexible personnel structure; avoid increasing governmental retirement obligations; and contract with specialized medical, mental health, and other services.”
Amanda Gilchrist, director of public affairs for the private detention company CoreCivic, which had a revenue of $1.77 billion in 2017, told the DCNF that CoreCivic “helps keep communities safe, enrolls thousands of inmates in reentry programs that prepare them for life after prison and saves taxpayers millions.”
“It’s unfortunate that politicians advocate against these benefits without themselves providing any solutions to the serious challenges our corrections and detention systems face,” Gilchrist added.
“Overcrowding, high recidivism rates and skyrocketing costs aren’t solved with politics or posturing. They’re solved with the hard work that chaplains, teachers, principals, counselors and correctional officers like ours put in every day,” she concluded.
Sanders has been perhaps the candidate most critical of the practice as he has called for the closure of private prisons since 2015 when he introduced his “Justice Is Not For Sale” Act.
His current “Justice and Safety for all” policy, for example, reads, “We must end the practice of corporations profiting off the suffering of incarcerated people and their families. The private prison industry is growing — and so are the horror stories.”
“In Mississippi, the rate of violent assault in private prisons was two to three times that of publicly-run facilities. At one facility, juveniles as young as 13 years old were common targets of sexual assault. … As has been reported, private prisons also act on their profit incentive by advocating for longer sentences for people convicted of a crime,” it continues.
Vermont has relied on private facilities since 2018 to avoid inmate deaths and pressure from criminal justice advocates to improve conditions for prisoners. The state currently has 1,750 people behind bars, according to VTDigger, citing Corrections Department Commissioner Mike Touchette.
In September 2018, the Vermont Department Of Corrections signed a contract with CoreCivic to move 228 Vermont inmates from a facility in Pennsylvania to a private Mississippi prison.
The move came following criticism regarding the prison conditions at the state-run facility in Pennsylvania, which Department of Corrections commissioners said had overcrowding issues that led to several inmate deaths, according to the Burlington Free Press in September 2018.
Inmates also complained about difficulty communicating with friends and family outside prison, little time outside cells and inadequate medical treatment at the Pennsylvania prison, the Free Press reported.
“What I can tell you is the transfer of Vermont’s inmates from Pennsylvania to the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility [TCCF] earlier this year has been a smooth transition. Inmates are actively participating in education and reentry programs while being housed in a safe, secure environment,” Gilchrist told the DCNF.
“Vermont inmates at TCCF are offered the opportunity to participate in a range of programs such as: Adult Education, GED Support, English As A Second Language (ESL), Addiction Treatment, Faith-based Skills, Carpentry and Computers,” she added.
Vermont has inmates in Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Mississippi, Valley News reported in June.
“While I strongly oppose sending Vermonters to a private prison, my office is obligated … to ensure compliance with state regulations,” Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan said, according to the Free Press. “I understand the limited options we have. But we must act and find solutions to reduce our incarcerated population.”
Vermont Democratic state Sen. Dick Sears similarly said, “I wish we had better alternatives, but this is the hand we’ve gotten dealt right now. While I’ve criticized the administration in a number of areas over the last two years, I don’t criticize them on this one.”
Vermont Defender General Matt Valerio said prisoners were “happy” to leave the public facility in Pennsylvania and that the CoreCivic facility allowed inmates to live out their sentences in a “relatively stress-free” environment, the Free Press reported.
“I had people in the Prisoners Rights Office talking about Kentucky as being the best prison in the state of Vermont,” he said.
Harris‘ plan explains how, in order to “end the era of mass incarceration” as president, she will “legalize marijuana, further reform federal sentencing laws, end private prisons and the profiting off of people in prison and push states to prioritize treatment and rehabilitation for drug offenses.”
California passed a bill to end the use of privately owned facilities in California in June 2019, but the state is still somewhat reliant on in-state private prisons due to overcrowding issues.
The legislation states that starting on January 1, 2020, the CDCR “shall not enter into” or renew “a contract with a private, for-profit prison facility located in or outside of the state to provide housing for state prison inmates.”
California has since transferred all of its inmates who were residing in a private Arizona facility into in-state correctional facilities. The state’s total inmate population is currently at 135% capacity, the Sacramento Bee reported in June.
About 2,000 of the state’s inmates are still being housed at in-state private centers, according to a March report by The San Franciso Chronicle.
The state’s use of private facilities increased after a federal court ordered officials to address the state’s severe prison overcrowding issue in 2009. Prisoners were sleeping on bunk-beds in a gym, and the suicide rate was almost twice that of the national average, Mercury News reported in February.
“When California’s prison system capacity was at 200% and conditions were so challenging as to be deemed unconstitutional, [CoreCivic was] one of the solutions the state turned to,” Gilchrist told the DCNF. “For 10 years, we’ve been providing safe, secure housing and life-changing reentry programming for inmates that had faced extreme overcrowding.”
“From 2015-2018, our partnership with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation [CDCR] resulted in inmates at La Palma Correctional Center and Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility earning more than 715 High School Equivalency (HSE) certificates and 3,700 industry-recognized vocational (IRC) certificates,” Gilchrist added.
“During this same period, the state was also facing severe budget challenges. Our partnership with CDCR eliminated the need for capital expenditures to build or expand existing facilities. This saved the taxpayers of California from the responsibility of these long-term obligations and allowed the state to direct its resources to other important projects,” she concluded.
A lawsuit filed in 2019 by inmate Robert Escareno accuses the CDCR of not moving fast enough with renovations, creating health hazards with mice and maggots on dining tables, as well as mold, rain and bird droppings seeping through walls and ceiling cracks, the Associated Press reported in April.
Repair and maintenance costs for California’s prisons are expected to reach as much as $1 billion; the state has already committed to spending $260 million in the next four years, according to AP.
“We should not be about profits for private prisons,” Booker said in a video about prison reform. “We should be about our values when it comes to immigration reform. We should be not separating families, taking away spouses, taking away parents of children.”
— Sen. Cory Booker (@SenBooker) March 20, 2017
In New Jersey, 13.7% of the state’s prison population was housed in private facilities in 2016, and that number has since increased due to the number of illegal immigrants currently residing in detention in the state while they await trial.
“In response to a surge in border arrivals that began late last year, ICE began using the New York area Correctional Facilities in May 2019 to temporarily hold persons encountered at the Southern Border who were awaiting adjudication of their cases before the federal immigration courts,” ICE spokeswoman Rachael Yong Yow said in a statement, according to NJ.com in May.
As a result, New Jersey imprisons illegal immigrants arrested in both its own territory as well as in New York, relying on both federal and private prisons to maintain overcrowding due to the state’s substantial contracts with ICE, The Nation reported in March.
One issue that could grow from the termination of private facilities would be “how the Department of Homeland Security would transition its immigration facilities, which are mostly run by private companies, but a much smaller population overall compared to the prison population,” Kara Gotsch, director of strategies at The Sentencing Project, told the DCNF.
Democratic politicians like Booker use a privately run ICE detention center in the town of Elizabeth as a protest point to argue against Trump’s immigration policies, despite the fact that the facility houses fewer illegal immigrants than nearby state-run centers.
Nation reporter Whitney Strub wrote, “A privately run detention center in nearby Elizabeth is where Democratic politicians go to protest and prove their resistance bona fides … at the smallest and by most accounts least-miserable facility — while studiously avoiding the county detention centers.”
“Even senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker gets caught in this awkward dance. Caught off-guard on television in Elizabeth last year, Booker promised the county facilities were on his ‘agenda of things to be investigated.’ But he never followed through and did not respond to a request for updates,” she added.
An Essex County state-run facility housing more illegal immigrants that the Elizabeth facility, for example, was discovered to be in violation of health and safety standards in a February 2019 report.
A detainee at the center said he found a loaded gun in the bathroom left by a security officer; the kitchen served spoiled meat and moldy bread; and inspectors found leaky ceilings in living areas, moldy showers and dilapidated beds, according to USA Today’s New Jersey affiliate, NorthJersey.com, citing the report.
The jail reportedly failed to notify ICE about the conditions at the facility — a federal requirement for state-run immigration facilities, according to the report.
“This marks the fourth time in less than a year that the facility failed to notify ICE of incidents involving detainees and raises serious concerns about the facility’s ability to handle security issues,” the report reads, according to NorthJersey.com.
WNYC immigration reporter Matt Katz told New Jersey’s PBS affiliate, NJTV, “Essex has 800 immigrants — this is the second-largest county jail that holds immigrants in the country — and they collect about $40 million a year” from ICE.
He added that it’s “unclear how much of that goes into caring for the detainees and paying for salaries for guards, but certainly, the county is making some profit off of this because that’s why they continue to have this contract.”
Gabbard’s campaign website states that the 2020 candidate “has fought against the privatization of prisons; corporations profiting off incarceration is costly, dangerous and inhumane.”
As the Hawaii representative wrote on Twitter in 2017, “The private prison industry is immoral, only concerned with their shareholders’ profits at the expense of human life. No industry runs more contrary to our nation’s founding ideal of liberty and justice for all. We need criminal justice reform NOW.”
Hawaii inmates have been dispatched to out-of-state private facilities such as the CoreCivic-run Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona since 1955 to ease overcrowding in state prisons, the Honolulu Civil Beat reported in February.
The state pays $82.61 a day to house an inmate at the private Saguaro facility, where about 35% of the state’s prisoners reside, compared to $182 a day to house an inmate in a Hawaii facility. The cost to rebuild the state’s crumbling Oahu Community Correctional Center in Kalihi was estimated at $525 million in a 2018 study, according to the Civil Beat.
All bill to end Hawaii’s contracts with private prisons and house all the state’s inmates in federal brills by 2035, H.B. 424, was killed for these reasons in 2018.
Democratic Hawaii state Rep. Gregg Takayama, chairman of the Hawaii House Public Safety, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee said the bill was “unrealistic” for the state.
Lawmakers in the state are now trying to pass another bill, H.B. 177, to have Hawaii purchase a Federal Detention Center in Honolulu for $170 million in an effort to house more inmates within state prisons.
Democratic Hawaii state Rep. Chris Todd, who introduced the legislation, said that sending prisoners out of state to facilities like Saguaro “damages children and doesn’t reduce crime.”
Private prisons are not necessary for successful prison reform in every state, though some states sign contracts with groups like CoreCivic and private prison company GEO Group to avoid overcrowding issues in state-run facilities.
Additionally, private facilities have had success with rehabilitation programs, such as GEO Group’s Continuum of Care (COC) program.
COC, which has 18 certified sites across the U.S., helped former inmates earn 2,779 high-school equivalency diplomas, 9,131 vocational certificates, 8,842 substance abuse certificates, 44,518 programming completions and 32,419 behavioral program completions in 2018, according to its latest annual report.
“The use of private contractors in prisons dates from 13th Century England and has been a controversial topic in America from the Colonial days until now. Since prison operation is a function of government in the criminal justice system it is also a feature of public policy and by its nature becomes a political talking point,” Lofgreen told the DCNF.
“Public/Private prison operation is a complex issue with many areas of concern. Before establishing a broad sweeping policy prohibiting the use of private contractors in prison operations it would be wise to evaluate how they are being used and what the States would do instead,” he concluded.
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