RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Profits In Prisons

Every now and then, one of the extremely intelligent pundits on national TV suggests that all the Trump drama around the international scene — anti-Palestinian policies, anti-Muslim policies, anti-immigration policies and so forth — might be a smoke screen for some even more flagrantly abominable policies around the national scene.

Like what? you might ask. What could be worse than banning people from seven countries from traveling to one place where they might be safe?

Well, for example, maybe the drama is playing out against a background of privatization. That’s the Art of the Deal of moving useful services from the public, tax-supported sector to the private, profit-making sector. Useful services like schools, roads, water districts, prisons. The beauty of this terrific system is that it takes tax money and puts it in the pockets of the 1%.

“Prison Stocks Soar After Trump Election” blared a headline from Investopedia. And, indeed, if you had invested in CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America) just before the election, you could have doubled your money in a month.

That’s partly because, a few months before the election, the Justice Department decided to stop using for-profit prisons when they documented high levels of violence in the facilities. Inmates were more violent against each other and poorly-trained staff were more violent in their treatment of inmates.

The Trump administration, however, advocates for more privatization. “I do think we can do a lot of privatizations and private prisons,” Trump said on the campaign trail. “It seems to work a lot better.”

“Work a lot better?” For whom. For investors, of course. As a bonus, his campaign against undocumented immigrants also fills prison beds with non-criminals — people awaiting deportation proceedings.

Writing for The Nation, David Dayen observed the connection between private prisons and Attorney General Jeff Sessions: “In October, a couple months after the Justice Department announced that they would phase out the use of private contractors in federal correctional facilities, Geo Group, one of the two dominant private-prison operators, hired two former Sessions aides as lobbyists ...”

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, for-profit companies held about 7% of state prisoners and 18% of federal prisoners in 2015. And if there are empty beds, no matter. Private prisons contract with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and by 2016, held nearly three-quarters of immigration detainees.

Thus, correctional services, re-positioned as private, become part of the profitable world of Wall Street and there is no evidence that they save the state money. While states get out of building costs at the beginning, privatization goals are all about fattening the bottom line for investors. In some cases, the prison company is guaranteed 100% occupancy at around $1500 per month per prisoner. And, while we would like to think that prisoners are learning some skills and gaining education while incarcerated, the truth is that teachers and classes cost money, so those expenses are eliminated.

You’ve read that the United States has more prisoners than any other advanced nation—about 666 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. Rather than becoming engines for rehabilitation, this new system releases prisoners with the same problems that got them in there in the first place. Few skills, low self-esteem, fear of normal society, inability to work with others.

For women prisoners, the cycle is even more egregious. Female prisoners, who are usually locked up for drug-related crimes, prostitution or petty theft, have to leave their children behind, often with relatives that they don’t trust. Or maybe the kids go into the foster home system, causing more expenses for the taxpayer. Because prisons are often sited in small rural towns, there is usually a lack of transportation. Thus, it’s difficult and expensive for the kids to see their moms and if they manage to get there, the visits are far from normal.

So, when women are imprisoned the effects last for at least three generations—the prisoner, her children and their children. Writing about the first privatized women’s prison, New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facilities, Silja J.A. Talvi of Santa Fe wrote: “Even back in 1989, the strategy of locking up women far from their communities of origin — to an isolated rural town inaccessible by public transit — should have been seen as a problem. NMWCF’s original population consisted of 149 women. Today, roughly 650 female prisoners … are estimated to have 1,800 dependent children, many of whom don’t see their mothers for years on end …”

As Talvi observes, the population of female prisoners has surged. She cites the statistic unearthed by Kathryn Watterson’s 1973 study, “Inside the Concrete Womb.” Watterson found 7,730 women in jails and 15,000 in state and federal prisons. Updating her book in 1996, there were 110,000. Eleven years later, Talvi found more than 208,000.

Schools, roads, and water districts have their advocates—parents, drivers and all us consumer. But prisons? Those are home to the most helpless persons in our society. And female prisoners are the most voiceless of all.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo., and co-hosts Farm and Fiddle on sustainable ag issues on KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2017

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