Before CoreCivic signed a new private prison contract with Kentucky, it was Corrections Corporation of America.
As CCA, this corporation lost contracts with the commonwealth for financial infeasibility, inadequate staff training and allegations of staff violence and sexual abuse against inmates.
Now Kentucky has re-contracted with the very same actors who gave themselves a “re-brand,” like a shady seller gives a dilapidated house a fresh coat of paint. But fresh paint only covers so much stench, and corporations profiting off of humans in cages stinks.
That is why, in July 2017, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers unequivocally rejected the use of private prisons. NACDL declared that “incarceration should be solely the responsibility of federal, state and local governments; should not be contracted to the private sector; and the prevalence of existing privatization should be reduced and subject to more thorough oversight to insure transparency, accountability, and sufficient care to the incarcerated population.”
I was fortunate to be on the committee that drafted this anti-privatization policy statement. I can only speak for myself here, but I do express my thanks that NACDL has clearly opposed private prisons.
One serious problem is that private prisons are excluded from already-inadequate Freedom of Information Acts. The Federal Bureau of Prisons is subject to the federal FOIA, and state correctional agencies are typically subject to similar laws. Exceptions and exclusions exist for things like ongoing investigations and security concerns, but those are (supposedly) exceptions from the general rule that the public may see public records.
In practice, it can be challenging to get federal prison records, and private prisons aren’t even this transparent. FOIA exceptions for “trade secrets” often shield records essential for measuring prison performance. Details from population guarantees to medical spending can be hidden from public review.
As a result, we have limited empirical ways to accurately assess private prison staff turnover, spending on recidivism-reducing programs, or even violence levels. And as private employees, corporate correctional officers’ personnel files are even more easily concealed than government employee information.
Congress has a bipartisan bill before it, the Private Prisons Information Act, to ease the secrecy. But, this is at least the fifth time such a bill has been introduced. In a Congress with numerous members still supporting their lifelong drug war, a Congress still electioneering with corporate prison donations, a Congress that could not even pass its controlling party’s signature promises, we can remain skeptical that private prison openness will survive the well-funded lobbyists paid to keep it tabled.
Without this access, we had to wait for an Inspector General’s report documenting dangerous patterns in the private-prison industry. The Justice Department’s top internal investigator found that private prisons “incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP institutions.” The IG “concluded that the BOP still must improve its oversight of contract prisons to ensure that federal inmates’ rights and needs are not placed at risk when they are housed in contract prisons.”
Since then, nothing has changed in corporate corrections except for the “re-brand.”
My critics point to studies alleging improved performance at lower costs through “public-private partnership.” Public costs diminish in some studies, while services improve, compared to cash-strapped public corrections agencies.
Utah-based Management & Training Corporation has reported that “increased performance and accountability is leading to expansion.” Temple University’s Center for Competitive Government published a study (partly funded by prison corporations) that alleged “public and private competition and cooperation in the provision of prison services has worked in terms of cost savings and performance measures.”
But that June 2014 report, based in part on Kentucky data, was published just a year after Kentucky ended its relationship with CCA for allegations of sexual abuse at Otter Creek Correctional Center. It came ten years after prisoners in the Lee Adjustment Center rioted against CCA guards, burning the administration building.
It came three years before the Justice Department’s IG blasted CoreCivic and the U.S. Marshals for failed oversight in Leavenworth, Kan., and two years before Tennessee suspended a major contract because of CoreCivic/CCA’s “serious issues” like understaffing, excessive force, and improper use of solitary confinement.
We have a group of corporations donating tens of millions of dollars to Congress, with executives staying at the president’s luxury resort and turning extraordinary profits on human misery. They manage this at the inmates’ expense and, after these men and women are released, at a risk to us all.
It appalls me that Kentucky wants to learn that terrible lesson again.
E. J. Hurst II of Lexington is a federal attorney who concentrates on criminal sentencing, appeals, post-conviction matters and the Freedom of Information Act. Reach him at email@example.com.