Lost in the end-of-the-year rush was pretty big news that says a lot about what the private prison industry is really about.
Just before Thanksgiving, the state of Kentucky signed a contract with CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, to reopen a prison, the Lee Adjustment center in the eastern town of Beattyville. The cost of the contract is relatively small — CoreCivic made $1.85 billion in revenue last year. But it highlights the core problem with private prison corporations: they’re in the business of human suffering.
Like many rural states, Kentucky is being wrecked by the opioid crisis. Despite all the rhetoric about “smaller government” and “right on crime,” the state’s Republican-led legislature has toughened drug penalties, pushing the prison population to an all-time high and filling the state’s prisons and county jails that house state prisoners.
Instead of addressing the crisis as an economic and public health issue, state leaders put themselves in the position of relying on a private prison corporation that they fired five years ago. That’s right. The state closed the last of its three private prisons in 2013 after a deadly prison riot and years of allegations of sexual abuse. Reopening the Lee Adjustment Center was the only option, said the official who signed the new contract.
Beattyville’s residents are running out of options too. With a median income of $14,871, it’s known as “the poorest white town in America.” Like many Appalachian towns, it used to be a little better off before the coal, oil, and timber dried up and the opioids and methamphetamines took their place.
Reopening the prison might mean new jobs and a little bit of hope for Beattyville but the truth is, prisons rarely deliver significant economic improvements and often bring financial and social hardships.
Not only are private correctional officers paid substantially less than public correctional officers — one in four of them make near or below the poverty line for a family of four — prisons can take a toll on struggling communities. A 2010 study of all prisons that were standing or built since 1960 casts “doubt on claims that prison building is worth the investment.” A 2001 report by Good Jobs First found that 73 percent of private prisons with 500 or more beds had received economic development subsidies, which can drain public budgets.
But private prison corporations don’t care. They exist for one reason and one reason only: to profit off human suffering.