Private Prisons Should Stay Out of Kentucky

Neal Turpin
Neal Turpin
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In 2013, our state got out of the private prison business. On economic grounds, on effectiveness grounds, and especially on moral grounds, it was the right decision. Today, that decision is being challenged, both by lobbyists looking to expand back into Kentucky, and by government officials forgetting the lessons of the past. It is time for citizens and legislators to clearly say:

Private prisons should stay out of our state. And everywhere else as well.

The Justice Department announced in a memo this August that they would end the use of private prisons. This decision was hailed by criminal justice reform advocates across the nation, as private prisons were found to be no better (and often times even worse) than facilities run by the federal government in terms of cost, safety, and results.

While this was a great (albeit long overdue) decision, Kentucky is actually ahead on the issue, having stopped the use of private prisons in 2013. Three facilities were shut down, including one in St. Mary, one in Beattyville, and the Otter Creek facility in Wheelwright which was hit by a sexual assault scandal. These facilities were operated by the Nashville based Corrections Corporation of America*, one of the largest private prison companies in the country.

[two_third_first]However, as many private facilities sit vacant and local jails face overcrowding, some in the state are considering re-opening these facilities, at least temporarily, to ease overcrowding. In fact, the state’s current budget allows the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet to recommission private prisons (see pages 91-92).

This would be a terrible decision. While publicly run prisons are by no means perfect, private prisons are less safe and provide negligible (if any) savings. There are concerns that private prisons could increase costs by lobbying for longer prison terms as they have in the past. As a private industry, their goal is not safety or rehabilitation, but profit. Inmates held in private prisons have higher rates of recidivism, as programs are often substandard, which further drives up costs. And private prisons cost more despite not dealing with the sickest or costliest prisoners. According to a report by the Department of Justice Inspector General, private prisons were found to be less safe, have more assaults, and more contraband.

In Kentucky, it is estimated to cost $35 a day to house an inmate at a county jail, and $55 a day at a private facility. In a letter, one groups of jailers, magistrates, and executives argued that private prisons have had a chance to operate in the state, “and they failed to operate safely and in a fiscally sound manner.”[/two_third_first][one_third_last][thrive_custom_box title=”Talking Points” style=”light” type=”color” color=”#1e73be” border=””]

  • Private prisons are less safe, less effective, and actually cost more in both the short and long term.
  • The prison industry lobbies for more and more prisoners, in order to make more money. This warps public policy around treatment and other alternative approaches.
  • Allowing private prisons to make even more money off the labor of their prisoners comes very close to modern-day slavery.[/thrive_custom_box][/one_third_last]

Private Prisons Not the Answer Economically

There is obviously an economic factor in this decision. The leading argument for privatization is that it saves governments and taxpayers money in providing services. According to this line of thinking, governments are inherently inefficient, and no match for the private sector in terms of getting results in a cost-effective way. This is not the case, however. Most public sector organizations function quite well, providing excellent results for the cost, and the private sector is in no way free from inefficiency or bad economic outcomes.

There is also the issue of jobs. In many areas, the economic infrastructure of entire towns is tied to keeping people in prison, and if the prisons go away, the jobs go away. But prisons are not factories or schools or headquarters or anything else that can provide for a stable or growing economy. They provide jobs, but employing some by incarcerating many is not a formula for a community’s or our state’s economic growth. The only way to grow that sort of economy is to lock up an ever increasing number of people. If you ever find yourself wishing that more people were in prison, you should re-examine your views on both economic development and criminal justice.

One study out of Washington found that, rather than helping, private prisons can actually impede job growth, as they place a downward pressure on pay and benefits elsewhere in the community, with annual pay around $22,000 less than in public facilities. That study also found that turnover in private prisons was 52% annually (90% in places like Texas), meaning these jobs are not sources of desirable long term employment or economic stability. Private prisons also fail to produce any major associated industries in the region, providing no spillover effect.

The areas where private prisons have been constructed have also had difficulties making payments. Many towns went into debt and ruined their bond ratings to build these facilities in the first place. Hardin, Montana defaulted on $27 million in bonds following the construction of a private prison. Mississippi is still paying off private prisons even after they’ve closed, owing nearly $200 million. For years, Littlefield, Texas had to pay $65,000 a month on a private prison that had been shuttered, forcing the city to increase property taxes, sewer and water fees, and actually lay off workers just to avoid defaulting.

Private prisons are not the answer to a region’s economic issues. They do not save money, the system does not lend itself to growth, salaries and benefits are low, and towns are often left holding the bill when things (inevitably) don’t work out.

Moral Concerns Even Greater

Beyond these economic concerns are the much greater moral considerations. Locking up people for the economic advantage of some is abhorrent, and reminds us all too much of a darker time in our past – a time that some argue (rather convincingly) has never really gone away. These issues are made further problematic due to the fact that the criminal justice system punishes minorities at overwhelmingly higher rates than whites. Black Americans are 2.7 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, 6.5 times as likely to be incarcerated at the state level, and receive sentences that are 50% longer than white Americans, despite similar rates of drug use and sale. Multiple studies have shown that whites are actually more likely to sell or use drugs than blacks, yet criminal justice outcomes are still wildly disproportionate.

Here, then, is a moral concern wrapped in an economic concern. Those who are incarcerated are often forced to work for nothing (or very close to it). People in prison can be leased out to work for private companies. They make products, grow food, and do construction. And while some argue that this is just part of the punishment, this system gets entirely too close to full-on slavery.

One article from Kentucky argues correctly that re-opening private prisons is bad, but for all the wrong reasons. Without free inmate labor, they argue, counties would lose state payments for housing those who have been arrested and lose their source of free labor. Counties would be forced to spend more hiring workers to perform those jobs. This is true. Slave labor is always cheaper. But it is indefensible, immoral, and inhuman. Nothing can excuse slavery, not even wanting to save taxpayers some money.

An economy built on the trading and incarceration of human beings, that treats people like commodities, is fundamentally immoral no matter how many jobs it creates. If your economic system is built upon a foundation of racist policy, you should seriously rethink your region’s growth strategy.

It’s Not Just Prisons

Privately run prisons are an economic and ethical disaster. However, there are more ways that private companies have worked their way into the criminal justice system than simply by housing prisoners. In response to criminal justice reforms, private companies have ventured into halfway houses and ankle monitoring services for those who have been released. If they can’t make money through mass incarceration, these companies will look to profit through other means, with equally disastrous results. Prison services are also often privatized. Food, phone, and medical services are often private, and are often less than adequate to serve those in prison, the community, and taxpayers.

The area where privatization may least serve those who are in prison may be in medical services. Private health care providers often work to cut costs, skimping on things such as emergency room visits, which puts the lives of those who need medical attention in danger. The largest of these providers, Corizon, has been criticized for its practices nationwide, including in Kentucky. Corizon has been the target of several lawsuits surrounding the deaths of inmates in both Jefferson and Fayette Counties. Another private company, Advanced Correctional Healthcare, was sued regarding the death of an inmate in Madison County.

There were also some signs that the Department of Homeland Security would stop the use of private detention centers for detaining immigrants. These hopes were dashed recently, however, when the Obama administration renewed a contract with the CCA, which will last at least until 2021. One private prison in New Mexico, whose last inmate was removed on October 1, will now be reopened as a detention center, in spite of the fact that these detention centers are not meant to be punitive and often house very young children.

New Lobbying Efforts

With the federal government ending its use of private prisons, lobbyists for the industry are likely to turn their attention to states, especially states (such as Kentucky) that do not currently have private prisons. This does not mean that they have given up at the federal level, however.

Private prison companies have spent tens of millions in lobbying and campaign contributions at the federal level, ensuring that the companies’ profits take priority over any sort of reform or rehabilitation. The GEO group has played an especially large role in lobbying efforts recently, hiring three new lobbying firms within a month and donating $150,000 to a pro-Trump super-PAC in August, the day after the Justice Department’s decision. It should be noted that though private prison stock plummeted in August following the DOJ’s announcement, the day after the Presidential election, shares of CCA rose 43%, and shares of GEO Group rose 21%.

Even with these efforts at the Federal level, private prisons may still look to states for new economic opportunities. The same month the Justice Department announced their decision, Louisiana renewed contracts with private prisons. In Pennsylvania, lobbying and influence gave way to full blown corruption. In 2009, it was discovered that judges were receiving $2.6 million in kickbacks from private juvenile detention centers to imprison minors. These minors often went before a judge without a lawyer, and were charged with things such as making a fake social media page and stealing loose change.

In a state like Kentucky, which no longer uses private prisons, we must brace ourselves for efforts by lobbyists and companies worried about profits. We must be wary even of temporary action with private prisons, as all too often these decisions become permanent.

Prison Cannot Be the Only Option

While private prisons should not be a solution, the concern that there are too many people being locked up for the system to handle is very real. The answer, however, is not to keep putting people away or even to build more public prisons. The problem with overcrowding is not that there aren’t enough prisons. It’s that we send people to prison instead of getting them treatment. It’s that we all too often prioritize jails over schools. Solving overcrowding by building more prisons doesn’t really solve anything.

There are many ways to address this issue. The first is to shrink the criminal justice system. Currently police, jails, and prisons have to deal with issues like mental illness, homelessness, and substance abuse, which they are not always equipped to handle. Over half of inmates have some form of mental illness, and imprisoning them instead of getting them treatment is costly and ineffective. Mental health and substance abuse treatment have to be seen as more viable options. Housing policies that help the homeless have to be prioritized. Prison cannot be the answer to every societal problem. Without changes to the justice system, it won’t be long before even the beds in private prisons are full.

Another solution is education. Education can help solve an amazing number of societal issues, and criminal justice issues are no exception. Higher rates of education lead to better public safety outcomes. People with lower levels of education are much more likely to have been incarcerated, and this risk of incarceration is greater for minorities, who face greater barriers to education. States with more investment in higher education were found to have lower rates of violent crime. Of the 10 states with the largest increase to higher education funding, 8 of them saw their violent crime rates fall. Of the 10 lowest, 5 states saw their crime rates rise. Even a 1% increase in high school graduation rates would save the country $1.4 billion in crime costs (property damage, court costs, prison, etc.). This is not to say that well educated people will commit no crimes (they will) or that high school dropouts are destined for prison (they aren’t). But educational attainment gives people more opportunity and helps to break down barriers to employment. If we allocated more funds to education, we would have fewer prisoners, and we would not have to rely on prisons to create job growth in the first place.

Turning our focus away from prison as the sole answer will also not increase crime rates. New York, for example, has seen its crime rates plummet, and while this is not unusual nationwide, it has coincided with a dramatic drop in the number of people who are incarcerated. Other states, such as Texas, Nevada, and New Jersey have seen similar results. In New York, New Jersey, and California, which all lowered their incarceration rates, the rates of violent crime decreased even faster than the national average, and property crime rates fell faster in New York and New Jersey.

Conclusions

Private prisons are a disgrace to justice. Their incentive is not to rehabilitate. It is not to reform or treat or educate. They have no interest in lowering crime or recidivism rates, or in keeping people out of prison. In fact, quite the opposite is true, because that is where their profits lie. Hopefully Kentucky’s decision in 2013 and the DOJ’s decision this year are just the beginning.

Of course, more must be done. The DOJ’s decision only applies to the federal Bureau of Prisons. It does not apply to states or even to other DOJ agencies like the US Marshals. States, counties, and cities are still free to enter into contracts with private prisons. This must end.

Kentucky must brace itself for an onslaught of lobbying efforts. We must also re-evaluate our relationship with companies that provide health care and other services to prisoners. Focusing on more prisons as the answer to overcrowding is not a solution. We must turn our attention to treatment. To economic opportunity. To investment in education at all levels. Doing these things will make our state and our communities better, safer, more economically vibrant, and save money.

On a moral, social, and economic level, the practice of locking people up for profit is wrong. The justification for using private prisons was that they were cheaper and better. They aren’t cheaper and they aren’t better. There can no longer be any justification for using them. Kentucky has been on the right track since 2013. The federal government is following our lead now. We can’t go back.

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* Perhaps wanting to get ahead of public opinion or public policy, CCA is currently undergoing a rebranding effort. They will now go by CoreCivic. This is an attempt to highlight more of the re-entry side of their business, as well as providing “government solutions.” Their announcement is particularly proud of their new typeface and color palate. However, you can’t simply rebrand your problems away. The abuse, violence, ineffectiveness, and inefficiencies will not disappear with a new logo (or typeface). A private prison by any other name will still have the same terrible results.

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Neal Turpin

Dr. Neal Turpin is a City Planner, and also part-time faculty in U of L's Department of Political Science. He lives in Louisville with his wife and children. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

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