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Prison Privatization as Political Payback

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This entry by AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Lee A. Saunders is cross-posted from Firedoglake.

Across the country, politicians have been selling off public assets to private businesses in exchange for hefty campaign contributions and sweetheart deals. The politicians claim they are saving tax dollars, but when the real costs are examined, it’s only the corporations – who back them financially at election time – who are making a financial killing on the deals. This kind of corrupt pay-back to wealthy corporate-CEOs has produced numerous disasters for taxpayers, who end up paying more in the long run.

Nowhere has this “pay and play” scandal been more outrageous than in the recurring efforts of some governors to privatize their state prisons. They sell the prisons to private contractors – including the GEO Group, Corrections Corporation of America, and the Management & Training Corporation – who then cut corners on safety, health and services. Some contractors refuse to take the most hardened criminals or those who are in need of medical and psychological services. Even without those prisoners, they run up costs to increase their profits.

All too often, private prisons cause more problems than they solve. For-profit prisons have significantly higher rates of inmate-on-guard assault, violence and escapes in broad daylight. One reason for the increase in violence is the habit of the profiteers to discharge the highly-trained staff and replace them with low-wage, low-skilled employees who are unable to meet the demands of staffing corrections facilities that house some of society’s most dangerous felons. Even in minimum-risk facilities, the privateers increase the danger to prisoners and the community when they make cuts to increase profits.

Judge Greg Mathis recently made that point in an article discussing a suit against GEO Group – brought by dozens of family members of inmates at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Jackson, Miss. The families contend that the corporation forces the prisoners – two thirds of whom are non-violent offenders – to live “in sub-standard conditions, where they are subject to excessive force from staff and are sexually preyed upon by other inmates and staff.” As Judge Mathis notes, one young man, 21-year old Mike McIntosh II, was so brutally injured in one incident that he now suffers from short-term memory loss and has lost the function of his right arm and right leg.

Moreover, the politicians pushing privatization are not honest with citizens. They make false claims about savings. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich proposed selling five of the state’s prison properties, claiming the sale would bring in revenue of $200 million, with no facts or guarantees offered to the taxpayers.

In fact, the real money was made by Kasich cronies who worked in cahoots with the prison privateers. As columnist Joe Hallet noted in the Columbus Dispatch last month: “Well before Kasich’s budget proposed privatizing five state prisons, his best friend, newly minted lobbyist Donald G. Thibaut, and two of the governor’s closest policy advisers, lobbying partners Robert F. Klaffky and Douglas J. Preisse, had signed up the nation’s two largest private prison operators as clients.”

Kasich is not alone in trying to sell state prisons to benefit campaign cronies and contributors. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott plans to put every Department of Corrections facility in the 18 counties of Southern Florida on the market, producing a windfall for the GEO Group, which has contributed more than $1 million to the Florida GOP. If GEO Group does what it has done in other states, potentially more than 5,000 experienced and qualified state corrections officers may find themselves replaced by unskilled, low-wage workers. Scott can claim that he is reducing costs, but experience demonstrates that any savings are short-lived. In the end, the costs will be higher for Florida’s taxpayers, as the private companies demand more taxpayer funds to boost their profits to pay their stockholders and fund lucrative salaries for their CEOs and top managers.

At long last, however, some state legislators are standing up to the politicians who are selling prisons to their campaign supporters. Last week, for example, legislators defeated Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s plan to give corporations some of the state’s prisons, at fire-sale prices. On June 6, the Louisiana House Appropriations Committee voted down a Jindal supported bill that would allow the State Department of Public Safety and Corrections to look into selling several prisons. That’s a victory for the taxpayers of Louisiana.

But all too often in recent years, the prison privateers have been winning these fights, even as the evidence mounts that they jeopardize prison security and don’t save money. It’s time taxpayers in other states let their voices be heard. Contact your legislators and tell them to oppose expensive and unnecessary privatization schemes.