The private for-profit prison industry in AZ
August 26th, 2012
Our member Dianne Post is an attorney whose career has focused on fighting one of the chief causes of poverty and injustice in the world – the inequality of women – with passion, creativity and great effect.
Over the past 26 years, Ms. Post has worked in over 14 countries to design and implement fundamental legal, policy and programmatic reform on issues related to gender equality. Post works with vulnerable populations, especially women and children, in developing, transitional and developed countries to achieve their human rights and freedom from violence.
Dianne Post is a gender expert in violence against women and children including domestic violence, sex-trafficking, prostitution and pornography. In addition to gender issues, Post has worked intensely on issues of discrimination related to African-Americans and the Roma in Europe. She works with governments, foreign aid agencies, and other partners to create, reform or implement laws, train actors in the government and criminal justice sectors and empower vulnerable populations.
Post also consults on international cases having filed cases and had oral argument in the European Court of Human Rights, with United Nations bodies and the Inter- American Commission on Human Rights.
You can learn more about Dianne's work at her website
Summary of Event, by Linda Wendler
by Linda Wendler
HSGP member Dianne Post, J.D. presented a revealing overview of the private for-profit prison industry at the August 26th regular meeting. This was a particularly timely topic as the State of Arizona is currently planning to award a contract to a prison company for additional private prison beds, in spite of a demonstrated lack of need for increased capacity.
Dianne described the origins of the private prison industry in the post-Civil War era as a way to retain the labor of the just-freed slaves. Blacks could be thrown into prison for petty, often trumped-up offenses, and then forced to work as leased laborers: it was simply enslavement by another name. Tellingly, this system existed only in the former slave states and was disbanded by the beginning of the 20th century as reformers complained of inhumane conditions and labor organizations complained about unfair competition.
Privatization reemerged in the 1960's as community centers and halfway houses were contracted out. The practice then spread to immigration detention, state and local prisons. Once again, as this practice re-emerged, private prisons and leasing of prisoner labor were concentrated in former slave states. New areas in the west where unions are weak and fiscal conservatism strong have now joined these states. Between 1991 and 1998, the private for-profit prison industry expanded over 800%. By the end of the 20th century, annual income for the industry was over a billion dollars.
Today private prisons are a robust and growing industry with powerful political lobbies and attractive bottom lines. In Arizona, we have a governor and many of her close connections who have received contributions from big industry players. Contracts between the state and these companies have been poorly negotiated, so that even when the companies have safety or security issues, the state must continue to pay them. The result is ever growing expenditures of taxpayer money.
In addition to collecting money from the state, private prisons contract out convict labor to companies making everything from office furniture to military hardware such as helmets and ammunition belts. The contracting company gets a great deal because the labor cost is lower than non-convict labor. The prison operator skims off most of the contract dollars, giving the convict workers a small percentage. Even with this source of income, private prisons are more expensive to operate than state-run prisons, as Dianne pointed out repeatedly.
Arizona has the sixth largest private prison population in the U.S. with 23% of prisoners held in private facilities. There are 15 private prisons in the state, six of which are federal prisons not under control of the state. Statistics show that crime has been declining but the prison population is growing faster than the growth of the general population.
Racial discrimination and sentencing policies are big drivers of the growth in prison population. In the federal justice system, the sentencing disparity between races can largely be explained by the practice of charging non-whites with crimes that have mandatory minimums and charging whites with crimes that do not. The “War on Drugs” has been a major driver of lengthy sentences along with so-called “Three Strikes” laws. Both have led to imprisonment of individuals who have never committed a violent crime, and minimum sentences remove any incentive for good behavior. Non-whites are incarcerated for drug violations at a much higher rate than whites despite the fact that drug use is fairly constant across racial lines. Dianne pointed out the irony that the minimum sentence laws were originally a progressive idea that has gone terribly wrong.
The private prison industry courts communities by promising local economic development, but the advantage to the community has been elusive. As Dianne pointed out, once you have a prison, that's all you have in the community because other businesses are reluctant to be near such a facility. In some cases, the prison has not produced sufficient profits for the corporation and has been abandoned, leaving the community with both debt and an eyesore.
What has this got to do with me as a Humanist, not just as a tax-payer? Dianne quoted the American Humanist Association: “Humanism is a worldview which says that reason and science are the best ways to understand the world around us. Dignity and compassion should be the basis for how we act toward others.“ She also quoted a an Israeli court decision which stated “The denial of personal liberty is a function of the state and the state alone. Transferring the power to a private entity undermines the legitimacy of law enforcement and sentencing as well as the moral basis for exercising authority over an individual offender.”
Solutions are difficult and elusive. The political sway of industry lobbyists is hard to counter, but as a first step, individuals and institutions can divest themselves of investments in the industry. Dianne also suggested that we replace the slogan “Tough on Crime” with “Right on Crime.” This approach would reduce the emphasis on incarceration, especially for children and those with mental illness. The new paradigm would revise mandatory sentencing policies and create earned release opportunities for non-violent offenders.
Those of us who have not been aware of the myriad issues surrounding the private for-profit prison industry owe a debt of thanks to individuals like Dianne Post and organizations like the NAACP and the American Friends Service Committee for tackling the industry and its political allies in court and in the media.