By Gitelle Seer
The controversial and unconscionable treatment of immigrant families and children at our borders shines a much-needed light on the for-profit prison industry. The largest private prison contractors house thousands of detainees across the country including in Arizona, which like many states is also housing out of state detainees. It comes as no surprise that private prison companies engage in extensive and expensive lobbying to guarantee that the government’s immigration laws and policies continue to align with their corporate self-interest and help drive their profits.
The use of private prisons subverts the purpose of incarceration, which is to provide rehabilitation for the imprisoned and safety for the community and was never intended to drive profit or be a commodity on a corporate balance sheet. But that is indeed the situation with private prisons, most of which are owned by two large public companies (GEO and CoreCivic) who are accountable only to their shareholders.
Since I prefer my outrage fueled by facts, I started to delve into the details (you know, where the devil is). Let’s start with some very sobering facts to put the situation in context.
Arizona currently has the 4th highest incarceration rate in the country, with Latinos and African Americans representing a disproportionate percent of the prison population. About 25% of our prison population has been convicted of low level, mostly drug-related, crimes. Harsh sentencing laws, including a law which requires prisoners to serve 85% of their sentence, are partly to blame. We spend over $588,000 a day to incarcerate prisoners; the state corrections budget for incarceration is roughly $1 billion a year. And despite claims that private prisons save the state money, we pay $24,000 a year per inmate in a private prison, which is $5.00 more per day per prisoner than in public facilities. Approximately 20% of prisoners in Arizona are housed in for-profit prisons.
Bear in mind that these private prison contracts with the state are long-term, some run for as many as 20 years, during which time our taxpayer money is going to publicly-held corporations, whose profits are going to their shareholders, rather than to fund drug treatment for prisoners, or programs that benefit the broader population, like education and social services. And the business model is built on paying for full occupancy even if there are empty beds. Private prisons can cherry-pick which inmates they take, screening out those with chronic illness and intractable mental health and behavioral issues – in other words, the most financially burdensome.
Between the lack of drug and mental health treatment in prison, and the incentive to keep all beds occupied, it is no wonder that recidivism is at the shockingly high rate of over 50% in Arizona.
And if the waste of taxpayer dollars while filling the corporate coffers in not outrageous enough, what about the conditions under which inmates live, and the safety threats to the community? There are many documented instances of safety violations, unchecked personal assaults and violence, escapes, riots, poorly trained and inadequate staff, and other scandals. And whose feet are held to the fire? Corporations are shielded from both full disclosure and the consequences of these conditions. Private prisons self-report and are not adequately monitored by the Arizona Department of Corrections. Imagine if you let your children “self-report” on their actions!
To add insult to injury (and deepen the financial hold of private prison contractors), the Arizona State Retirement System has investments in one of the largest private prison companies. Quite the irony, given the lack of funding for education and the fact that Arizona spends more than twice as much to house a prisoner than to educate a child.
Until we take control of the rise in the prison population, we must find ways in which to hold these companies accountable for their poor oversight and break their financial stranglehold on our corrections system. There are steps that the Department of Corrections can take, such as demanding transparency of records, requiring accessibility by outside monitors and members of the press, and tying continuation of contracts to objective measures of success, including declining recidivism and successful drug treatment programs.
In addition, we as citizens must pressure our lawmakers to make good faith efforts to address the complexity of factors that contribute to mass incarceration. But that is a conversation for another time.
Gitelle Seer, retired NYC law librarian and a seasonal resident in Tempe.