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Letters from Pelican Bay

By| Tania Mejia

In August of 2016, the Department of Justice [DOJ] made an announcement claiming it would begin phasing out the use of private prisons. I clearly remember coming back to school and a number of people sharing their excitement and asking my personal thoughts on it.

I would start off by saying yeah it was a great thing, but our number of private prisons was miniscule to the total amount of state and federal prisons in our nation. So while it seemed like a great accomplishment, federal private prisons only made up about 8% of our incarcerated population and in the end of December 2015 only housed 22,660 inmates according to an inspector general report. Also, this did not include state private prisons, which similar to our federal government are in the low percentages. I personally thought it would be a greater accomplishment had it been in regards to immigration detention centers, considering about two-thirds of them are privately owned. This is where it is worth mentioning, simply because it is called “detention center” does not mean it is not a prison. 

Following the DOJ statement, stocks for private corporations such as Corrections Corporation of America, now Core Civic, and GEO Group, formerly Wackenhut,  plummeted. It seemed those who prioritize profits over people were concerned about the future of their investment. But this was not a clear win, and with such companies donating to Trump’s campaign it was expected that the fight was not over. Most recently, the Trump administration announced it will not uphold former Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates’ memo and that we will continue and increase our use of private prisons.

The reason this is so concerning starts with looking at the models in which companies as CCA and GEO operate in. To ensure maximum capacity and profits, contracts are introduced where states are required to keep a certain percentage of beds full.  What are the problems with private prisons? Culture of violence, poor unsanitary conditions, health care, food, operational conditions, sexual abuse, If crime rates have been down in the past decade, how do we account for such usage of these facilities?

Some contracts require 90 to 100% occupancy, which means if states don’t provide those numbers, they have to pay these companies for the unused beds. If not, increase the criminalization of everyday life. 

Private prisons did not exist before the early 1980s when U.S. states and the federal government needed a solution to overcrowding in public prisons. But between 1990-2009 the number of people in private prisons increased by a massive 1600 percent. The business model of these companies essentially depends on locking up more and more people up.

In its 2010 annual report to shareholders, CCA stated, “The demand of our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of law enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.” Because of these concerns, private companies spend a lot of money lobbying for policies which will benefit their pockets.

How can we stop the use of private prisons? Unfortunately, we now have a president who is going to make any effort nearly impossible. But we know private prisons spend a lot of money on lobbying politicians there is hope. They all support governors, state legislators, and judges, which we all have a say in. This requires digging into local and state politics.

I would encourage everybody to read “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard” by Shane Bauer for Mother Jones. We have vulnerable populations in these facilities including juvenile and immigrant detainees. The problem spreads beyond America into countries like Africa, Australia, and more.  Our nation’s prison system is a failure on its own. Prioritizing profits over people does not serve community, families, and society, but only those who are invested.

Any Orange is the New Black fans will be somewhat familiar with the problems that follow when public institutions turn to for profit companies. Fun fact, Management Correction Corporation (MCC) piggybacks off the real private prison company Management Training Corporation (MTC).

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