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CNBC Puts a Spotlight on For-Profit Prison Firm

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By Clyde Weiss Public Safety Media Privatization

There’s a good reason they call the Idaho Correctional Center – the state’s only privately operated prison – the Gladiator School. “That was because of the assaults,” former corrections counselor Todd Goertzen says in a revealing – and chilling – report by CNBC correspondent Scott Cohn. “If you're going to ICC, it's going to be fight or die, basically.”

It’s a shocking report about the violent conditions at the prison, but one that AFSCME members already know. A similar story about the Gladiator School, published in the Fall 2010 issue of AFSCME Corrections United, notes that Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America – the nation’s largest owner and operator of private prisons, including the Idaho Correctional Center – was being sued by 24 Idaho inmates in a class-action case.

No prison is immune from violence, but if you are a corrections officer or employee, you don’t want to wonder whether your safety is weighed by your employer against their bottom line. That seems to be what’s happening among privateers like CCA, according to the CNBC report.

The 62,000 corrections officers and 23,000 corrections employees represented by AFSCME Corrections United (ACU) know intimately about the dangers that lurk within prison walls. These brave women and men also know about the greater threat of injury or death within prisons operated by for-profit companies.

Taxpayers are footing the bill for these for-profit prison operators. Lawmakers who support them argue that it’s cheaper to outsource corrections facilities, but a New York Times report shows it actually costs taxpayers more to let private prison corporations run state corrections facilities than it does using public service workers.

That may be why private prison operators use their considerable financial influence with elected officials to stay in business, and grow. America’s largest private prison companies “pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaigns of governors, state legislators, and judges” to gain their favor, according to AFSCME’s report, “Making a Killing: How Prison Corporations Are Profiting from Campaign Contributions and Putting Taxpayers at Risk.”

CCA doesn’t like it when anyone reports on problems within its prison walls. As the privateer notes in its own corporate report, “negative publicity about an escape, riot or other disturbance or perceived poor conditions at a privately managed facility may result in adverse publicity to us and the private corrections industry in general. Any of these occurrences or continued trends may make it more difficult for us to renew or maintain existing contracts or to obtain new contracts, which could have a material adverse effect on our business.”

Business is what CCA is all about. But the safety of those who work in corrections facilities should not depend on the business decisions of executives, who keep one eye on their corporate image and the other on the share price of their company’s stock.