Prisons for Profit



In last month’s Socialist Action, Shirley Pasholk described the increased use of prisoners as below-minimum-wage workers and even as strikebreakers by U.S. corporations. Her two-part series of articles continues below.

Prison labor is not the only way businesses profit from the soaring U.S. prison population. Another method is through privatization of prisons. Between 1995 and 1998, private prison cells went from 20,000 to 200,000. Writing in the Jan. 5, 1998, Nation, Eric Bates predicted the private share of the prison “market” would double in the next five years.

Civi-Genics of Marlborough, Mass., which will operate the North Coast Correctional Treatment Center slated to open next year in Grafton, Ohio, currently operates 103 facilities in 20 states, including Ohio’s Columbiana County Jail. Its annual revenue is about $68 million.

The Management and Training Corp. of Ogden, Utah, will operate the Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Conneaut, another Ohio prison still under construction. Other private prison operators are Community Corrections Corp. of Roseland, N.J., Cornell Corrections, Inc. of Houston, Correctional Services Corp. of Sarasota, Fla., and Wackenhut Corp. of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Then there’s the largest of them all-Corrections Corp. of America, headquartered in Nashville. According to Forbes magazine, CCA is among the nation’s 100 fastest growing businesses and the top five performing companies on the New York Stock Exchange. Shares soared from $50 million in 1986 to $35 billion in October, 1997.

In a Feb. 17, 1998, op ed piece, Cleveland Plain Dealer Associate Editor Phillip Morris stated: “Wall Street clearly has fallen in love with this company, whose high yield performance puts it in the top 20 percent of stock market returns over the last 10 years.”

Both because it’s the largest, accounting for more than 50 percent of the inmates in private prisons nationally, operating the sixth largest prison system in the United States, and because it manages Ohio’s only existing private prison-a prison in Youngstown which in only two years of operation has quickly become known as Ohio’s most violent-I’ll concentrate my remarks on CCA.

CCA: Torture in the name of profits

CCA never allows any of its employees to forget that its primary aim is to maximize profits. Every CCA prison has a sign at the front entrance and at the warden’s office listing the closing price of its stock. Employees are frequently reminded that their first obligation is to the shareholders. Employee compensation is tied to profitability, so employees have a personal stake in cutting corners on costs and writing reports that will keep their charges incarcerated longer.

While brutal guards and physical and mental abuse are not uncommon at state-run prisons, CCA prisons use tortures one usually finds in reports on human rights abuses in a third world dictatorship.

In reporting on what it called purely punitive, gratuitive infliction of pain at the CCA operated prison in Youngstown, the DC Prisoners Legal Services Project stated: “Each prisoner was required to lie on his cell floor. Several officers entered the cell and handcuffed the prisoner behind his back. Officers took this as an opportunity to abuse prisoners. One prisoner had his dental plate broken when his face was shoved into the floor. Others complained of bruises when guards punched or kicked them.

“After being handcuffed, each prisoner was led out of the cell block with a guard on each arm. As they exited the unit into the main hallway, they were pushed up against the wall and held standing while a guard sprayed them directly in the face with mace or pepper gas.

“The prisoners were then taken to an empty cell block and locked together with another inmate in a cell. The handcuffs were not removed, nor was medical care provided. The only relief they could obtain from the mace that had been sprayed on them was to dip their heads in the cell toilet.

“It was only after the passage of several hours that the handcuffs were taken off and prisoners were permitted to wash the mace off their faces. By this point, the skin had begun to peel on many of the prisoners.”

On Oct. 3, 1998, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the Wisconsin Department of Corrections was sending a team to investigate allegations of beatings, electrical shocks, and sexual abuse suffered by Wisconsin inmates incarcerated at a CCA prison in Tennessee.

One of these Wisconsin prisoners, 18-year-old Ottoway Murphy, described his ordeal: “At least eight individuals dressed in black took him to a room, stripped him, kicked him in the ribs and shocked his penis with a stun gun.” They spit in his face three or four times and threatened to kill him that night.

South Carolina decided not to renew a one year contract with CCA for a juvenile detention center after horrific abuses including hog-tying and shackling boys together and improper staff training.

A 1987 report from the Prison Officers Association of England on a Texas CCA facility cited cruelty to inmates and abysmal conditions. They described the Houston Processing Center as “possibly the worst conditions we have witnessed in terms of inmate care and supervision.” A 1990 Texas government report described excessive force.

When the Prison Officers Association of England visited a CCA workhouse in Tennessee, they were shocked to find prisoners cruelly treated and disruptive inmates gagged with tape. They also reported the warden’s remarks that female inmates provided strip shows for male guards.

On March 1, CCA agreed to pay $1.65 million to settle a law suit alleging excessive force by guards, inadequate medical care, and unwarranted use of pepper gas on inmates. An editorial in the March 3 Plain Dealer commented on this largest settlement by a private prison: “This settlement signals the creation of long-needed accountability for a prison that, in just two years of operation, has gained a reputation for gruesome violence, inexcusable mismanagement, and at least one mass escape.”

Between 1991 and 1995, CCA settled around 80 law suits, paying $2 million for claims including a wrongful death in custody, a negligent classification that resulted in a stabbing, and various civil rights violations. The September 1997 Prison Legal News reported 268 pending law suits.

An Aug. 30, 1999, Plain Dealer article quotes former employee David Fishenbaugh: “They don’t care about the corrections officers and they don’t care about the inmates. Everything there is about money.”

Robert Oliver, another former employee, is quoted: “They gave us a rundown saying two slices of bread per inmate costs this much. If you can cut corners here, it would mean a possible raise for us.” Even toilet paper is rationed. Teachers bring in their own supplies because of the shortage of paper and pencils.

Other CCA prisons report similar stories. Tennessee Guard Mark Staggs stated: “You make sure you don’t waste money on things like cleaning products because it’s your money you’re spending.”

Antonio McCraw, released after three years from South Central in Tennessee said, “You might get a good meal once a month. The rest was instant potatoes, vegetables out of a can, and processed pizzas. CCA don’t care whether you eat or not. Sure they may cut corners and do it for less money, but is it healthy?”

As the 1700 D.C. inmates arrived at CCA’s Youngstown prison, their medical records and prescription drugs didn’t arrive with them. Inmates who want to see a doctor must file a written request. A nurse examines this written request and decides whether to schedule an appointment-often two weeks later-or advise the inmate to purchase an over-the-counter medication from the prison canteen. Of course, when the written request complains of a cough, the nurse must simply guess whether it’s a cold or TB.

Some inmates were told their prescription medication is too expensive and they should purchase Advil instead. No provision is made for indigent inmates who can’t afford to purchase over-the-counter drugs at the canteen.

Similar cost-cutting occurs in employee wages, benefits, and training. Despite the penny-pinching, the cost differential between private prisons and state ones is minimal. A CCA official explained that this is deliberate. They bid just low enough to get the contract because, just like better health care for inmates, tax-payer savings cuts into CCA’s profits.

Private prison operators are quite active politically, lobbying for harsher sentencing laws. Mandatory sentencing laws are, of course, good for their bottom line. The Cabot Market Newsletter has compared it to a hotel that’s always at 100 percent occupancy-and booked well into the next century.

A March 21 Plain Dealer editorial commented: “Early in the next century, the United States will incarcerate more citizens than any other nation. That’s a dubious distinction worth examining, given that the crime rate is plummeting and prisons represent one of the fastest growing parts of state and federal budgets.”

In his Nation article, Bates states, “By privatizing prisons, government essentially auctions off inmates-many of them young Black men-to the highest bidder.”

Stripping prisoners of right to vote

The U.S. also uses its criminal injustice system to disenfranchise citizens. Some 3.9 million (1.4 million of them African American men) have been stripped of their right to vote. Ten states permanently bar felons from voting and 14 bar them long after their sentence is completed.

At the current rate, up to 40 percent of African American men will be barred from voting in some states. Already 31 percent of the African American men in Louisiana and Alabama are totally disenfranchised.

At the Youngstown private prison, race and class discrimination are even more apparent than at Ohio’s state-run prisons. Of the first 800 prisoners, only two were white. The average annual income before being imprisoned is $7000.

In a March 21, 1998, forum on privatization in Youngstown, attorney Jonathan Smith concluded: “We incarcerate too many people in this country. Most are young, male, people of color. Public officials are looking for a quick fix: a profit-driven concern for the bottom line.”

A March 11 Plain Dealer editorial on the private DUI facility under construction in Grafton said, “Some critics have no trouble imagining an unholy alliance between private prisons with vested interests in keeping their institutions full and legislators who love special interest money and never pass up a chance to posture on crime.”

In these two articles, I’ve described prison labor and the privatization of prisons. These are but two of the many symptoms of capitalism-a system designed to maximize the profits of the few at the expense of the overwhelming majority.

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