They are not building these prisons to stay empty,” Reverend Ovester Armstrong, Jr. told protesters at the Minnesota State Office Building on March 22. “They are building these prisons to fill them up.” Inside, the House Public Safety Committee held hearings on re-opening a private prison in Appleton. The private prison is owned by the Correctional Corporation of America (CCA), the largest prison company in the United States.
“We should help people, not make money off of them,” said Reverend Armstrong. “We should not let someone’s life be held hostage to a dollar bill.”
Bad for prisoners, bad for the rest of us
Private prisons are for-profit operations. They make money by minimizing services.
Joe Broge, a correctional officer at Stillwater, said at the protest rally that he worked at Stillwater when the CCA prison in Appleton was open before, and heard stories from the inmates who were placed there. “There are reasons why per diem in private prisons is lower,” he said, “and none of those reasons are good ones.”
Private prisons skim the “easiest” prisoners from the public institutions, then skimp on rehabilitation and medical services. They pay employees less than those working in state prisons, and provide far less training and supervision, resulting in unsafe conditions, and putting prisoners, staff and the public at risk.
In the hearing, Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis NAACP, testified that “Who we do business with is just as important as the business we do. Doing business with the CCA is like doing business with the devil, because their practices are diabolical.”
Big bucks in for-profit prisons
The private prison industry is huge. CCA is the biggest player, with $1.7 billion in income in 2011. Its CEO was paid $3.7 million in 2011. CCA spent $17.4 million on lobbying from 2003-2012 and $1.9 million in political contributions.
About 131,000 prisoners were held by private prisons in 2014, according to the U.S. government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).
Race is in the equation
Across the country, the justice system disproportionately imprisons black men. BJS reports, “In 2014, 6% of all black males ages 30 to 39 were in prison, compared to 2% of Hispanic and 1% of white males in the same age group.”
Protesters called prisons “a new wave of slavery.” They pointed to the need for more social programs rather than more prisons. Minnesota’s racial disparities in housing, income, health and education extend to the state’s prison system:
- “Black people make up less than 6 percent of Minnesota’s population, according to 2013 census estimates, but made up 35 percent of the prison population as of January 2015.
- “Native Americans comprise about 1 percent of Minnesotans, but accounted for about 10 percent of the state’s prisoners.
- “White people make up the vast majority of the state population — 86 percent — but only 53 percent of the inmate population.”
Putting more people in prison
Overall, Minnesota keeps too many people in prison for too long. According to the Star Tribune,
” Over the past 25 years, the state’s incarceration rate has soared by 150 percent, and Minnesota’s prisons are bloated beyond capacity and burdened by runaway costs. The majority of that growth can be attributed to harsher penalties and other changes to the state’s criminal code passed by state lawmakers.”
Much of that increase comes from war-on-drugs legislation which greatly increased the penalties for drug offenses. As a result, reports the Star Tribune, “From 1998 to 2005, the state’s drug-crime inmate population more than tripled from 700 to nearly 2,200.”
Private prisons contribute to filling the prisons: contracts frequently require governments to keep the for-profit prison full or at 90 percent of capacity.
In its 2014 annual report, CCA warned stockholders that “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected relaxation of 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.”
Do private prisons save money?
Profit drives private prisons. The original rationalization for the government to contract with them was saving money. That hasn’t worked out so well.
The Arizona Republic fact-checked claims, and found that
“There is no universally accepted method when comparing private and state-run prison costs. However, the most recent Corrections Department study that attempts to compare prison types on a level playing field concluded that per inmate costs were cheaper in state-run prisons than in private prisons.”
According to a study from the University of Wisconsin, “inmates in private prisons are likely to serve as many as two to three more months behind bars than those assigned to public prisons and are equally likely to commit more crimes after release, despite industry claims to lower recidivism rates.” Keeping people in prison longer, the study notes, means more income for the for-profit prisons.
While the House Public Safety Committee voted 10-7 along party lines to approve the prison proposal, the proposal is not likely to go anywhere this session. (Sally Jo Sorenson has been reporting extensively on the story at Bluestem Prairie. Subscribe to her blog for continuing updates.)
Though the Republican committee vote sent the bill to the Ways and Means committee, the DFL-majority Senate is unlikely to consider the measure. Governor Mark Dayton has already rejected reopening the Appleton prison. The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission has proposed reducing sentences for many drug offenders rather than opening new prisons. Department of Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy testified that expanding prisons is not on the DOC agenda.
Even if this private prison proposal does not move forward, other creeping prison privatization continues in areas from medical care to phone service to in-prison employment and post-prison release services. But that’s a matter for another day.
For more information:
- Minnesota’s move to use private prison space draws opposition (Pioneer Press, 3/22/2016)
- Minnesota’s other prison problem: Race (MinnPost, 6/26/2015)
- Dayton nixes private prison lease, public prison expansion; Swift County & lobbyists still at it (Bluestem Prairie, 1/15/2016)
- Absolutely stunned by rejection of prison, Miller invents awful Swift Co unemployment rate (Bluestem Prairie, 1/15/2016)
- Decades of new laws caused Minnesota’s prison population spike, (Star Tribune, 2/7/2016)
- Prisoners in 2014, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 9/2015
- By the Numbers: The U.S.’s Growing For-Profit Detention Industry (Pro Publica, 6/20/2012)
- Study finds private prisons keep inmates longer, without reducing future crime (University of Wisconsin, 6/10/2015)
- How for-profit prisons have become the biggest lobby no one is talking about (Washington Post, 4/28/2015)
- Fact Check: Are state prisons cheaper than private prisons? (Arizona Republic, 10/21/2014)
- Medical neglect can be fatal in privatized immigrant-only prisons (Center for Investigative Reporting, 2/4/2016)
- Five myths of the private prison industry (MuckRock, 10/19/2015)
- Prisons for profit (AFSCME, undated)
- Punishment & Profits: A cost-benefit analysis of private prisons (Oklahoma Policy Institute, 8/7/2013)
- Banking on Bondage: Private prisons and mass incarceration (ACLU, 11/2011)
- Too good to be true: Private Prisons in America (January 2012)
She is also the former editor of the TC Daily Planet and of the award-winning Connection to the Americas and AMERICAS.ORG, a recovering attorney, and the author of many books for young people (and a few for adults), mostly focusing on historical and social issues. Her career in journalism began when she was in high school, writing a weekly column for the Litchfield Independent Review. The column began with a multi-part investigative journalism series on the county school system, which she still considers among her best work.