If private prison companies are in the business of locking people up, do they have any incentive to rehabilitate inmates?
According to them, yes.
“Our company invests close to $100 million per year in rehabilitation, education and re-entry programs, which help offenders reintegrate into society,” The GEO Group said in a statement.
GEO says it offers training in such things as academic and vocational classes to life skills and treatment programs.
GEO says it has awarded more than 10,000 GEDs through its in-prison academic programs in the last decade. And, in that time, about 40,000 inmates have achieved completion certificates from a variety of GEO vocational programs including computer support, carpentry, culinary arts, horticulture, masonry, electrical and commercial driver’s license courses.
Other prisoners have benefited from cognitive behavior, problem solving, employability and parenting courses, along with substance abuse and therapeutic programs, the company’s statement said.
Officials at Corrections Corporation of America said, “The underlying premise of this question is incorrect.
“CCA’s success or failure is based on our ability to meet or exceed our government partners’ expectations for safe, secure facilities and providing value to taxpayers.
“Collectively, the industry only houses about 10 percent of the total inmate population in the U.S. What’s more, the rehabilitation and re-entry programming we provide is part of the value we provide our partners. In other words, in addition to being the right thing to do, it’s a great selling point for our company.”
CCA spokesman Steve Owen said each year CCA’s principals and teachers help inmates earn GEDs and learn employable skills such as computer skills and cabinetmaking. Full-time chaplains teach values like responsibility and anger management.
According to a recent study by RAND Corp., offenders who participate in correctional education programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who do not, Owen said.
But Caroline Isaacs, with the American Friends Service Committee of Arizona, doubts the companies are sincere in their efforts at rehabilitation.
“I would say not ... and neither is the Arizona Department of Corrections, quite honestly.
“Because truly rehabilitative programming costs money, and the taxpayers of Arizona don’t appear to want to pay for that. And the for-profit corporations certainly don’t want to take away from their shareholder profits to pay for expensive therapy,” Isaacs said.
“Anybody can have a 12-step program; that’s run by volunteers. And 12-step is great and worthy, but that is not drug treatment,” she said.
And, Isaacs said, because private prisons also “cherry-pick” inmates, they don’t have to accept prisoners “who have mental illnesses, and need ongoing medication and treatment for mental illness, because that’s expensive.”
Isaacs said the most compelling evidence to her that private prisons’ rehabilitative efforts are lacking is that not a single one of the companies measures recidivism, or the rate at which their inmates reoffend after they’re released.
“They can’t claim that they are rehabilitating anyone because they can’t prove it,” Isaacs concluded.
CCA’s Owen countered that statement.
“Because sentenced inmates who serve part of their time in CCA facilities by and large are returned to their agencies of jurisdiction before being released, we do not have the ability to track offender progress after their release. We do, however, ensure that the re-entry and rehabilitation programs we are providing to inmates are evidence-based and externally validated by independent research that demonstrates the effectiveness of those programs in reducing recidivism.”
Dianne Post with the Maricopa County NAACP said a private prison is more likely to tout the demand for its beds than any alleged success at rehabilitation.
“If you’ve read some of the annual reports from prisons and what they give to their stockholders, they say ‘Lookin’ good for us. Looks like we can keep filling our beds. We don’t want any changes in the drug laws because that might mean fewer people in prison. We don’t want any comprehensive immigration reform because that might take people out of our prisons. We want crime,’” Post said.
Post has opposed private for-profit prisons in Arizona since 2011. The national NAACP is opposed to private for-profit prisons, she said.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, the head of Behavioral Systems Southwest in California was quoted in the New York Times saying that if he couldn’t reduce recidivism in the facilities he was taking over, he would voluntarily relinquish his contract, according to prison analyst Christopher Petrella.
“That would never ever occur today, ever,” Petrella said. “There is absolutely no level of transparency or accountability. It’s very difficult to obtain information on recidivism rates and educational programs available in these for-profit facilities, and believe me I’ve tried.”
He says the difficulty stems from claims by CCA, GEO and other companies to a proprietary exemption from Freedom of Information Act reporting.
Petrella and a colleague, Alex Friedmann at Prison Legal News, have worked with U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, to introduce a bill called the Private Prison Information Act.
It would require the companies to comply with FOIA requests to the exact same degree as their public counterparts, Petrella said.
“The justification is we, the public, pay 99.2 percent of your revenue, therefore we have a right to know what’s going on in your facilities,” he said.