Commentary

Setting the prisoner free, part two

Can there be a worse idea than privatized prisons? There probably is, but I can’t think of it right now.

You may be asking what the big deal is. It is at least debatable whether privatization of the penal system can keep costs down by virtue of decreased salaries for guards and administrative staff and using the inmate population as a source of unpaid labor.

There is undoubtedly money to be made in the prison industrial complex. This must be true because I know that the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), owner of the largest private prison industry system in the nation, has spent tens of thousands of dollars lobbying governors and legislators to change laws regulating prisons.

Bob Hulteen

I start to worry that justice is blind because the Corrections Corporation of America punched her eyes out.

One of the requirements CCA makes, according a recent letter sent to 48 states offering to manage government prisons, is a commitment to “have sufficient inmate population to maintain a minimum 90 percent occupancy over the term of the contract.”

CCA wants a guarantee that the court system will keep sending a targeted number of inmates its way in order to ensure that it will make a profit. I have never heard anything so cynical in my life. Remember, they aren’t saying, “We think that due to human nature, perhaps on account of original sin, that the jails will be filled with evil-doers so that we can sufficiently recover our investment with a small profit.” No, they are saying, “You must find enough people guilty that we can make money.”

How can anyone trust a judicial system that is required to incarcerate a targeted number of people? How can such a system not lead to unequal justice?

Replacing rehabilitation with profit

The legislative group that has been working on CCA’s agenda — the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — has been receiving a significant amount of press attention recently. This is the organization that has pushed model legislation throughout the country in state legislatures such as Stand Your Ground (made famous in the Trayvon Martin case in Florida), Right to Work, and photo ID.

It is not a coincidence that the same bills are coming up in state houses all across the country. And, despite the fact that most legislators deny that they didn’t write their own legislation, the fact that bills are word for word the same in different states can make one skeptical.

ALEC has drafted a number of bills benefiting CCA. For example, its “Truth in Sentencing Act” requires that someone convicted of a crime must serve a minimum of 85 percent of their sentence for to be eligible for parole or early release.

Previously, representatives of local communities served on hearing boards that would determine on a case-by-case basis all particular situations. If, for some unanticipated reason, it was deemed that a person had served sufficient time, these community leaders could determine to release the person. But the ALEC-sponsored truth in sentencing bill requires that 85 percent of the term be served.

If you are running a prison for profit, as CCA does, I suppose you want to keep inmates as long as possible. Lengthier sentences ensure a greater margin of profit.

I am not sure what lengthier sentences do for rehabilitation — the stated goal of imprisonment — but I doubt that a diminished trust in the integrity of the system and its capacity to judge fairly doesn’t help. I start to worry that justice is blind because the Corrections Corporation of America punched her eyes out.

When Paul and Silas were bound in jail, with no money to pay their bail, they had lots to worry about. Perhaps they were concerned that someone had declared war on religion. Maybe they were resigned to a system that wasn’t concerned with the rights of the incarcerated. An argument could be made that they might have had good reason to feel profiled. But they didn’t have to wonder if they had been found guilty simply because the owners of the penal system required a quota of inmates.

Ah, those were the good old days.

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