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Back to the Future: Private Prisons and Making Homelessness a Crime

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Winston Churchill once famously said “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  So let’s learn it, and make sure we don’t repeat it:

Once upon a time, in the late 1800’s following the release of all slaves in the country, we watched private companies take over our prison systems.  This system was known as the “convict lease” system, and I wrote about it nearly a year ago.

This system was essentially legal slavery.  Millions of slaves had been released from bondage with nothing of their own, and no way to take care of themselves.  As a result, homelessness and petty crimes such as shoplifting, public intoxication, and vagrancy spiked while production in these communities plummeted given the lack of free workers.

In reaction, in Tennessee the government entered into a convict leasing system with a card player named Thomas O’Conner, who essentially rented-or leased-their prison system for 5 years.  He then turned around and sold their labor to the Tennessee Coal Mining Company.  Once that started working financially for him, he furthered his endeavors, as best described in the words of American historian David Oshinsky;
“Railroad fever was sweeping the state, and unskilled labor was in short supply.  After little debate and much bribery, the legislators turned over the entire prison system to a professional card gambler named Thomas O’Conner for $150,000 on a 5 year lease.

By 1871, state convicts were laying track and mining coal from Memphis to Knoxville.  Each morning their urine was collected and sold to local tanneries by the barrel.  When they died, their unclaimed bodies were purchased by the Medical School at Nashville for the students to practice on.”

Right about now you should be saying to yourself: “Okay this was clearly bad, but what does this have to do with us today?”  The answer is two-fold:
1) Private prisons
2) Making homelessness a crime
Private prisons really started making an appearance in the country again in 1984-and again, it originated in Tennessee, when Corrections Corporation of America (or CCA) was awarded the contract for the Hamilton County facilities.  From there, companies like CCA or Management & Training Corporation (MTC) have further found their way into our correctional system to the point that today CCA claims they supervise over 80,000 prisoners, and MTC claims ownership of 23 facilities across 8 states.

Here’s the problem with private prisons: they are run by for profit companies.  For profit companies love one thing: revenue.  They live to make…profit, or money!  In order to make that money, they have to sell their product.  In the case of a company like CCA, their product is a filled bed-and they’ll do whatever they need to, to fill that bed.  These places have quotas to meet, they have break even points at which they are breaking even if so many beds are filled-and every bed filled after that is money in their pocket.  And as with the company in your college textbook producing “widgets” these companies know just how much each unit is worth to them for every day, week, and month they serve.

In order to fill these beds, private prison companies have three main strategies:
1) Reclassifying prisoners
2) Supporting stricter judges and interpretations of law
3) Extending the stay of prisoners in any way possible

Reclassifying prisoners is both simple and dangerous.  What happens here, is say a company like CCA owns minimum and medium security facilities in a state, and they need to fill some beds.  A company might be inclined to influence either an individual in the process or overall policy in the state to reclassify dangerous inmates to lower levels of restriction, allowing for their transfer to a privately owned facility.  This is particularly and directly dangerous to the public as lower risk inmates are housed under less restrictive conditions, allowing for greater opportunity for escape or additional criminal behavior while incarcerated.  Such behavior only ensures the inmates’ longer stay, making it overall a financial “win/win” for the prison company.

Companies such as CCA deny influencing policy in any way, but several are at least major contributors to conservative political lobbying/public policy groups, showing they certainly have some recognized financial stock in such decision making processes.  Which moves us onto strategy two: supporting stricter judges and legislators.  This helps keep the beds full by ensuring that judges win that impose tougher penalties for minor crimes.  So what would once get you a fine now gets you 10 days, what once got you 10 days gets you 30, and so forth.  This doesn’t help with rehabilitation or ensuring the safety of society, but instead with something far more important: the bottom line.

Lastly, such private prison companies as CCA as we’ve established have a vested interest in keeping prisoners under their “supervision” as long as possible.  They also have complete control over these prisoners, and the general perception is that only the prisoners have motive to lie when caught breaking rules.  However, if breaking a rule involves the loss of “good time” then it fills a bed longer.  If it is so egregious that it results in a new charge-as these days rule violations in prison and jail often do-then it could DEFINITELY result in the prisoner’s stay being extended by months, even years, generating revenue, turning these prisoners into their own personal cash cows.


Now in the past we’ve seen crimes related to homelessness; such as shoplifting, vagrancy, or public intoxication as I covered at the beginning of this piece.  In recent days we have seen Tampa Bay criminalize homelessness, and a city commissioner in Miami suggest doing the same there.   Not surprisingly, Florida is what many would consider a big private prison state.  With 7 of their state facilities currently under contract with for-profit companies, just last year Floridian legislators narrowly defeated a bill that would have added more than two dozen facilities to that list.

But their sights don’t stop there.  According to a report early last year, CCA recently sent a letter to 48 states basically feeling out whether or not they’d be open to private prisons.  Essentially offering cash, and outlining basic plans for facilities.  I’ve linked the letter, but here’s a part that really jumped out at me.
PrivatePrisonReqsNotice, they know they need 1,000 beds and 90% occupancy rate.  Maybe that’s their breakeven, maybe it’s their desired profit margin, but one way or another they want a facility 90% filled.  They don’t want to rehabilitate prisoners, they want to fill beds and they outline the basic finances of that themselves for you right in this letter.  Well, it’s not “for you”, it’s to prospective clients.  They don’t want you to know that.  They call themselves “leaders in corrections” with “decades of proven results”.  What they don’t mention is that every financial analysis shows that most financial analyses disprove that idea.

It doesn’t take much more than a quick google search to turn up reports from the likes of Yahoo, the New York Times, the ACLU, and Think Progress denouncing the idea of private prisons, the idea that they save the state money, or both.  And those reports are just from recent years.  Financial analyses dating back to a 1996 report done by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the same thing, and others are willing to go farther suggesting that when you weigh ALL costs (social and economic) into the equation, private prisons are much more expensive to society as a whole than the dollars they appear to save on the surface.

Companies like CCA may call themselves “Leaders in Corrections” but according to most, it’s their business dealings that need correction.  Let me know what you think below.

(Link to letter from CCA to 48 states in late 2011/early 2012 HERE)

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Robert D. Cobb
Founder, Publisher and CEO of INSCMagazine. Works have appeared and featured in places such as Forbes, Huffington Post, ESPN and NBC Sports to name a few. Follow me on Twitter at @RobCobb_INSC, email me at robert.cobb@theinscribermag.com

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