Why private prisons everywhere need to be put out of business

Confronted with the growing number of people in cities and suburbs across America who have succumbed to heroin-related drugs, more of the country is finally seeing the advantage of medically treating opioid addicts instead of just locking them up. A similar epiphany needs to occur with prison incarceration in general.

Prisons have become greenhouses where inmates grow accustomed to the type of behavior and associations that lead to recidivism. They get out of prison only to return within months or a few years. Particularly deficient are private prisons, whose primary concern is their owners’ bottom line, not recidivism rates.

Staff writer David Gambacorta illustrated the problem in telling the story of Thomas Bryant, an opioid addict who in 2007 hanged himself at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Delaware County. Bryant’s family says his pleas for medical attention were ignored for three days by guards at the prison run by GEO Group. He committed suicide using prison-issued linens.

GEO, which began as Wackenhut Corrections, was in the vanguard of the private prison industry movement, landing its first federal contract in 1987 to manage an immigration detention center. Based in Boca Raton, Fla., the company now runs 64 prisons with 74,000 inmates nationally and seven other prisons with 7,800 inmates overseas. Its revenue last year was $2.1 billion.

Studies suggest taxpayers are not getting the best return on their dollar by paying private companies to run prisons. Any reduced costs in running private prisons are largely due to their paying staff less and hiring fewer people. That means less qualified personnel overseeing too many inmates. Add that to the recipe for recidivism and its impact on the cost of law enforcement.

Acknowledging the shortcomings of private prisons, the Justice Department announced last August that it would phase out all private prison contracts within five years. But that directive was reversed by new Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who as a U.S. senator from Alabama employed two legislative aides who are now lobbyists for GEO, the private prison company.

Through mergers and acquisitions, three companies – CoreCivic, GEO, and Management & Training Corp. ­– now account for more than 90 percent of all the private prison beds in America. Their collective lobbying clout in Washington and state capitols across America is formidable.

Rather than listening to lobbyists, public officials should look at the evidence and admit private prisons haven’t proved their worth. They exist only because it was easier to contract with private companies than get taxpayers to pay for the new prisons needed to handle the explosion of inmates generated by the failed drug war.

The war seems to be ending. It’s time to change. It’s time for communities that depend on private prisons for employment to find a better industry. It’s time for prison companies that have no incentive to reduce inmate populations to stop pretending they care about rehabilitation. It’s time for Sessions to stop acting like it’s his job to help private prisons stay alive.


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