OP-ED: ‘Prisoners for Profit’ Reveals Corruption and Abuse

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John Lash

Being a prisoner isn’t easy. Prisons in the United States, including juvenile prisons, are terrible places to be. Despite the conservative trope of cushy country clubs where three square meals, a luxurious bed, recreation and entertainment are to be easily had by freeloading criminals, even the “best” prisons are places full of danger, injustice and suffering.

One reason prisons are like this is the continued embrace of punitive justice. The people who are most in need of treatment and care are shortchanged. Highly qualified staff are hard to come by in traditionally low-paying prison work. Overall, there is a desire to put the least amount of resources as possible into prisons.

A terrible outgrowth of this mindset is the continuing privatization of prisons. Governments, however corrupt and inefficient they might be, are at least in theory committed to standards of treatment and goals that include providing medical care and programming that can reduce recidivism and treat the underlying causes of criminal behavior. Private corporations on the other hand, are truly responsible only to one group: shareholders. This can lead to decisions that don’t contribute to the larger good, and which harm the vulnerable populations that such corporations oversee.

Privatization combines the worst aspects of government and business. Insider deals, lobbyists, campaign contributions, fraud and bureaucratic red tape make up the landscape where the two worlds intersect. Chris Kirkham’s recent expose in The Huffington Post reveals just how far an unscrupulous businessman can go when he has the right connections and lines the right pockets.

Examining decades of business records, interviewing former staff and prisoners and drawing the links between political contributions, corruption of oversight procedures and continuing access to contracts, Kirkham shows the sordid history of James Slattery and his string of for-profit prison ventures.

From his beginnings in real estate, to providing substandard housing for poor people, to housing federal parolees, to a series of deals with states to provide prison space and management Slattery has proven adept at making deals and cutting corners. According to the piece, in the realm of private youth prisons his companies have been infamously involved in several deaths, numerous assaults, unreported riots, poor medical care, infested and insufficient food and a slew of other violations that wouldn’t be tolerated had they been perpetrated on a more sympathetic and visible population.

Kirkham’s reporting shows that from Esmor, to Correctional Services Corporation, to Youth Services International Slattery’s companies have left a trail of poor staff training, abuse, understaffing, warehousing and violence in their wake. In a “complex arrangement, [he] gave up a portfolio of 14 immigration facilities and adult prisons across the country as part of a $62 million sale, while buying back one division for $3.75 million: Youth Services International.” YSI continues to operate facilities in Florida and Georgia.

According to the report “Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities Reported by Youth 2012”, issued by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one YSI run facility in Paulding County, Georgia had the highest rate of staff on youth victimization in the nation. Two of its other facilities in Florida were similarly “winners” in the categories of youth reporting sexual victimization and sexual misconduct by staff.

This should come as no surprise, since pay is low, training is inadequate and the corporate structure inhibits reporting to state authorities. An atmosphere is created where staff are disinclined to do the jobs they are responsible for and are able to get away with all sorts of abuse.

As deplorable as conditions in state facilities can be, there is a least hope of accountability through political action, governmental oversight and citizen advocacy. The state is ultimately beholden to its citizens, even if the connection is hard to see sometimes. Corporations are under no such constraints, and sending kids to their facilities is not only poor policy, it is putting the weakest among us at the mercy of soulless corporations whose only concern is the bottom line.

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