Your Freedom: Sold To The Highest Bidder

There is a lot of talk lately about freedom, liberty and tyranny. Fear not, not-so-young tea partier, the government is not taking away our liberty. Where would the profit be in that? No, they aren’t taking it away. In true capitalist fashion, they are selling it to the highest bidder.

For decades, the M.O. of the Republican party has been to starve the beast. It’s simple, really. By cutting taxes, lowering wages and increasing the unemployment rate (i.e., outsourcing), they dramatically cut tax revenue. When income takes a dramatic drop, they create a collective sense of panic. It’s during these times of panic that we start hearing the right wing mantra of “cut, cut, cut!” They cut education. They cut social programs. They cut medical services. In short, they cut every program that has ever helped an American.

The Republican agenda of taking away America’s bootstraps has not come without backlash. People take it personally when their children are forced into a classroom with 60 others. They don’t like having to file bankruptcy because they had the audacity to get sick. They tend to be uncomfortable with the idea that Social Security and Medicare, programs that they have paid into their entire lives, will not be there in 10 years.

One cut that receives very little backlash is to the prison system. It makes sense. On the conservative side of the spectrum, parasitic criminals are eating our tax dollars. On the civil libertarian side of the spectrum, they see too many people either wrongfully incarcerated or jailed for minor offenses. Almost one out of every 100 American citizens is behind bars. That is a higher per capita rate than any country, including civil rights abusers such as China. The most recent data on costs per prisoner was from 2001, but even then it was over $22,000 per year. More recently, the state of California estimated close to $50,000 per year.

The American prison system doesn’t work. A study released in 2002 found that 67.6% of prisoners were rearrested within three years of their release. Even when a prisoner is behind bars, we are not safe. It is estimated that 40% of American prisoners are infected with hepatitis C, compared to just 2% of the general population. Even while behind bars, the prisoners can spread the deadly disease through conjugal visits.

It’s obvious that something needs to be done. For many, they see cutting the funding as the surest way to force the prison system to solve its problems. The simple flaw in that logic is that the prison system is just one rung in our justice system. For true reform, we have to start at the beginning. We have to change our laws. There is no reason for a marijuana dealer to share a jail cell with a serial rapist. There is no reason for a marijuana smoker to even be in prison. Should someone who bounces a check be forced into spending five years with a murderer?

Cutting funding for prisons won’t dramatically reform the prison system. Prisons don’t make the laws. Prisons don’t arrest law breakers. Prisons don’t sentence criminals. Cutting funding for prisons will force them to cut back on guards, making prisons even more dangerous.

When a state is faced with a prison system that is overcrowded and underfunded, what should they do? For many states, the answer is in the private sector. They are selling the prisons to private prison companies.

For many, this sounds like the ideal solution. Private companies are always more efficient than the government, right? Private companies are always less corrupt than government, right? Because companies are driven by profit, they must run a tighter, more accountable ship, right? Wrong.

Private prisons are not less expensive than public prisons. In fact, they are more expensive. According to the New York Times,

“There’s a perception that the private sector is always going to do it more efficiently and less costly,” said Russ Van Vleet, a former co-director of the University of Utah Criminal Justice Center. “But there really isn’t much out there that says that’s correct.”

Such has been the case lately in Arizona. Despite a state law stipulating that private prisons must create “cost savings,” the state’s own data indicate that inmates in private prisons can cost as much as $1,600 more per year, while many cost about the same as they do in state-run prisons.

Private prisons also have a luxury that public prisons do not; they are able to cherry pick their prisoners. Private prisons are able to turn away the sickest or most dangerous (aka most expensive prisoners), essentially legally cooking the books to make them seem more cost effective.

Selling prisons will give states a one-time infusion of cash, but it will eliminate the long-term revenue that states currently receive.

When a prison is motivated by profit, a stay in prison becomes a commodity. A private prison company’s first allegiance is to their shareholders, not to the citizens of the state and certainly not to its inmates. They often take draconian measures to cut costs.

According to a recent study by the ACLU,

Private prison companies cut costs by hiring cheaper, lower-skilled staff and fewer of them. The result is a vicious cycle where poorly trained and poorly disciplined corrections officers are incapable of adequately responding to prison emergencies. Prison safety conditions deteriorate, and more staff quit, increasing the turnover rate.

A 2004 report found that private prisons had 50 percent more inmate on inmate assaults and almost 50 percent more inmate on staff assaults.

Private prisons are similar to the hotel industry in one simple way; they make money when they fill beds. They lose money when beds are empty. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, the prison population has actually declined in recent years. In fact, it is at its lowest rate since 2003. 2009 showed the first decrease since 1972. The Pew Research Center attributes the decline to a “drop to greater diversion of low-level offenders and probation and parole violators from prison; stronger community supervision and re-entry programs; and, a quicker release of low-risk inmates who complete risk reduction programs. State budget problems have likely played an important role in accelerating each of these trends.”

This trend, while still small, has recently sent private prison company stocks on the decline so they are becoming proactive.

Private prison companies are spending a lot of money to ensure that there remains a steady influx of prisoners. The Montana-based Institute on Money in State Politics revealed that during the 2002 and 2004 election cycles, private prison companies, directors, executives and lobbyists gave $3.3 million to candidates and state political parties across 44 states. In Florida, nearly 20% of political contributions are from private prison companies.

Not only are they lobbying the government to let them build more prisons, they are lobbying lawmakers to create new classifications of law breakers.

Arrest warrants are being issued for debtors, typically for failure to show in court…a court date the defendant wasn’t even aware of.

Just this year, former Judge Mark Ciavarella of Luzerne County, Penn., was convicted of accepting bribes from a private prison companies for sentencing children to jail.

Arizona’s Governor, Jan Brewer, has been tied to the private prison industry. KPHO News in Phoenix uncovered the fact that her campaign chairman and policy advisor is a lobbyist for the largest prison company in the country. Arizona’s SB 1070, which is designed to curb illegal immigration would directly benefit prison companies by directly filling beds.

Some human rights organizations are calling the private prison system a new form of slavery.

“The private contracting of prisoners for work fosters incentives to lock people up. Prisons depend on this income. Corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners’ work lobby for longer sentences, in order to expand their workforce. The system feeds itself,” says a study by the Progressive Labor Party, which accuses the prison industry of being “an imitation of Nazi Germany with respect to forced slave labor and concentration camps.”

The prison industry complex is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States and its investors are on Wall Street. “This multimillion-dollar industry has its own trade exhibitions, conventions, websites, and mail-order/Internet catalogs. It also has direct advertising campaigns, architecture companies, construction companies, investment houses on Wall Street, plumbing supply companies, food supply companies, armed security, and padded cells in a large variety of colors.”

According to the Left Business Observer, the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove assembly; 46% of body armor; 36% of home appliances; 30% of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21% of office furniture. Airplane parts, medical supplies, and much more: prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for blind people.

At first glance, this might not seem that nefarious, especially to the fiscally conservative. Prisoners are receiving free food and a free place to sleep. They shouldn’t be making real money. However, when you weigh in the fact that many of these prisoners are not a threat to society and the fact that they are taking jobs from non-criminals, this represents a significant drain on society.

According to the Centre for Research on Globalization,

Ninety-seven percent of 125,000 federal inmates have been convicted of non-violent crimes. It is believed that more than half of the 623,000 inmates in municipal or county jails are innocent of the crimes they are accused of. Of these, the majority are awaiting trial. Two-thirds of the one million state prisoners have committed non-violent offenses. Sixteen percent of the country’s 2 million prisoners suffer from mental illness.

How pervasive are private prisons? The Reason Foundation recently released a white paper which said that “Nearly 130,000 inmates are now housed in private facilities. 14 states (Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Wyoming) had relocated at least 10 percent of their state prison populations to private-run facilities.”

Screen-Shot-2012-12-27-at-6.14.13-PM Wendy Gittleson grew up in a political family. Her passion is for social justice and fairness. She is the Senior Editor for Addicting Info. She lives in a union household. In her rare downtime, you’ll find her hiking or exploring the shoreline with her dogs. Follow her on her Facebook page or on Twitter, @wendygittleson