Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Problem With Privatization

Bloggers and journalists across the country are starting to ask the question: is America’s privatized prison industry lobbying for more Arizona-style immigration laws to help their profits?

It’s a good question.

Nationwide there has actually been a drop in the jail population: this should be good news, but in a country where the profit motive has been inserted into every arena of the public good, it actually presents some ethical problems.

(And by the way: lower prison population doesn’t necessarily mean less crime: tight budgets across the country have prompted the early release of inmates to save money.)

Regardless of the reasons, if there’s a steady decrease in the number of incarcerated individuals at the same time that we have outsourced our government’s corrections responsibility to a for-profit private industry, then it makes sense that this industry will look for ways to find more people to put in prison. Its profits and shareholders depend on it. And what better way to do that then to go after the most vulnerable, voiceless population out there: illegal immigrants.

Is that happening? It’s certainly big business in Arizona:
CCA operates three prisons in Arizona that house detainees for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Theoretically, more arrests mean more detainees, which means more money coming into the company.

“There are winners and losers in the business of immigrant detention,” wrote Tennessee Immigration and Refugee Rights Coalition spokesman Elias Feghali in an email. “The winners are often the companies that have a direct financial interest in seeing people detained, regardless of the merits of detention.”

As this City Paper article reveals, Tennessee's passage of a new bill that basically extends Davidson County’s 287(g) program statewide will mean big business for Nashville-based Corrections Corp. of America, the biggest player in the privatized prison business. Not surprisingly, CCA’s PAC made generous donations to Tennessee politicians, including the very legislators who sponsored this bill.

This makes me extremely uncomfortable. The moment our government decided it was okay to allow the profit motive to become part of the people’s gravest responsibilities--fighting wars, and incarcerating and rehabilitating those who break the law--we entered an ethical abyss. And just as there have been abuses in our privatized military, we have seen problems at CCA facilities: violating state laws, even charges of outright abuse.

But even if CCA’s prisons and jails operated as model facilities, I still say: You should not make money off of human suffering, and that includes war and prisons. If we were truly a “Christian” nation we would never allow companies like CCA to exist.

As we hand off more of the public good to for-profit corporations, we see corporations exerting their muscle over a wider array of public life. Companies like CCA, Koch Industries, and RJ Reynolds and industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute don’t just lobby legislators and make donations to political PACs to ensure favorable attention: Through groups like the industry-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, they are actually writing their own laws:

Though it calls itself "the nation's largest bipartisan, individual membership association of state legislators," ALEC might better be described as one of the nation's most powerful -- and least known -- corporate lobbies. While other lobbyists focus on the federal government, ALEC gives business a direct hand in writing bills that are considered in state assemblies nationwide. Funded primarily by large corporations, industry groups, and conservative foundations -- including R.J. Reynolds, Koch Industries, and the American Petroleum Institute -- the group takes a chain-restaurant approach to public policy, supplying precooked McBills to state lawmakers. Since most legislators are in session only part of the year and often have no staff to do independent research, they're quick to swallow what ALEC serves up. In 2000, according to the council, members introduced more than 3,100 bills based on its models, passing 450 into law.

Through a quick Google search I learned that ALEC is behind the many state legislative efforts to opt-out of healthcare reform.

So yes, there is a mechanism in place by which companies such as CCA can write legislation favorable to their profits, legislation that is ultimately adopted by state legislatures across the country virtually verbatim. And yes, there is a precedent: CCA apparently worked through ALEC in the past to draft pro-incarceration legislation ultimately adopted in over 40 states:

In another instance of profitable policymaking, ALEC drafted a model "truth in sentencing" bill that restricts parole eligibility for prisoners, keeping inmates locked up longer. One of the members of the task force that drafted the bill was Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest private prison company, which stands to cash in on longer sentences. By the late 1990s, similar sentencing measures had passed in 40 states. "There was never any mention that ALEC or anybody else had any involvement in this," Walter Dickey, the former head of Wisconsin's prison system, told reporters after his state passed a version of the measure.

No wonder CCA touted “exciting growth opportunities” in its investor presentations:

Both “high recidivism” among felons and “inmate population growth following prior recessions” are highlighted as positives for the company in the 48-page report.

Conflict of interest much? It’s bad enough that corporations have so much power in America, but this is nothing new. We’ve been beating a pro-corporate drum since the 1950s when we first heard “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” But when that corporation makes its megamillions off of human suffering, then what’s good for the corporation isn’t necessarily good for America. Where is the incentive for peacemaking? Where is the incentive for rehabilitation of prisoners? A company that profits from recidivism put in charge of our prisons is the kind of company that gives rise to a place dubbed the “Gladiator School.” Shame on us.

Allowing anyone to profit off of human misery, while giving them the power to write laws on a local, state and national level, virtually ensures that human misery will spread. This isn't a path to progress. This is a path to wretched misfortune. It starts with the lowly and least powerful, but make no mistake: it's a hungry beast and it won't stop until its worked its way up the food chain.

Some things should not be for sale. Some things do not benefit from a liberal sprinkling of free market fairy dust. Some parts of the common good should be left in the peoples’ hands.

I mention all of this as a warning. Keep your eyes open and pay attention to what your state legislatures are doing, and who is behind them.