PLN has opposed the private prison industry since we began publishing in 1990; back then the industry was in its infancy, having started in 1983 in its modern incarnation. Besides the political and moral implications of farming out correctional functions to for-profit corporations, there has been the well-documented reality that private prisons tend to be even worse than government-run facilities in such areas as safety, transparency and staffing levels. Nor has there been any evidence that they actually save the government money.
So it was a surprise when I heard the U.S. Department of Justice’s announcement in August 2016 that it planned to phase out its use of private prisons because, well, they were less safe and more violent than their Bureau of Prisons (BOP) counterparts and, by the way, there was no evidence they were any cheaper.
That it took the federal government a scant 33 years to realize this is a testament to the fact that they do not read Prison Legal News, or any other independent media outlet that has reported extensively on the private prison industry. This month’s cover story on private prison cost-shifting by PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann is a brief summary of the many problems within the industry. Whether the BOP will actually stop using private prisons in the next five years remains to be seen. In Vermont and Hawaii, governors came to office pledging to end the use of for-profit prisons to house their state’s prisoners, but years later that practice continues unabated.
Also, all too often the focus is on the private prison industry as an inherent ill. Private prisons are the symptom while mass incarceration is the disease. Even if all private prisons closed tomorrow, there is little likelihood that the prisoners they house – around 130,000 in state and federal prisons nationwide – would be released. All that would do is put pressure on government officials to enact sentencing reform or build more prisons, or more likely, to buy or lease the facilities from the for-profit companies that own them.
The big money for the private prison industry comes from detention contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As longtime readers of PLN will recall, in 1999-2000, when CCA was collapsing under the weight of its own mismanagement and ineptitude after the first time it converted to a real estate investment trust, Congress and President Clinton stepped in with sweetheart deals on immigration detention contracts that literally saved the company from going under. Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of the Dept of Homeland Security, has said he will announce in late November, after the elections, whether ICE will continue to use for-profit facilities to house immigrant detainees.
Of course the real decision will be made by whoever wins the White House. Hillary Clinton has said she opposes private prisons, after taking large donations from lobbyists for the private prison industry and standing by her husband Bill’s bail-out of CCA in 1999-2000. Donald Trump has stated he supports private prisons, though he does not seem wedded to them any more than he is to anything else. Meanwhile, CCA, GEO Group and other private prison firms will be frantically lobbying Congress and anyone else with a say in the matter to retain their federal prison contracts. Since the private prison industry has no serious opposition – serious as in well-funded, organized and resourced – and to date never has, it remains to be seen what will actually happen.
As I write this editorial, September 9, the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising in New York, has passed – and it was also the date that some prisoners had selected for a national prison work strike to protest their enslavement and poor conditions. News reports have been mixed. If there were any organized protests at a facility you are aware of, please let us know as we are compiling news stories on the work strikes and related incidents. You can email details to email@example.com, or mail them to our Florida office, Attn.: Monte McCoin. One thing that was never made clear by the organizers was whether the strike was open-ended or limited to just September 9.
The second edition of The Habeas Citebook: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel (THC), by Brandon Sample and Alissa Hull, is now available and ready for shipping from our office. We have added a lot of content, and with 275 pages the book has more important information than ever before. THC is available for $49.95 postpaid. On the good news front, Brandon recently passed the Vermont bar and will soon be a licensed attorney. He spent over a decade in the federal prison system as a jailhouse lawyer when he authored the first edition of THC, and was a longtime contributing writer for PLN. Congratulations to Brandon on passing the bar! Alissa, the book’s co-author, is a former staff attorney for the Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization. THC is the best book of its type and a must-have for any prison law library and anyone challenging their criminal conviction due to ineffective assistance of counsel. More importantly, the book acts as an important checklist for the things defense attorneys are supposed to do for their clients – i.e., effective representation.
Lastly, we are in the midst of our annual fundraiser; if you have not yet made a donation, please consider doing so. We rely on your support for our advocacy projects like the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, Stop Prison Profiteering campaign and Prison Ecology Project. All donations, no matter how small, help us do the work we need to do which is often not being done by anyone else. Please encourage others to donate as well. With the holidays approaching, a perfect gift is a subscription to PLN or some of the books we distribute through our bookstore. Enjoy this issue and please encourage others to subscribe.
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