Date: Thursday, January 15 1998

Making Crime Pay

Source: St. Paul Pioneer Press Author: David Morris

Private prisons exploit inmates and the penal system in the name of turninga profit. If it has a payroll, privatize it. So goes the reigning doctrine of the day. The urge to privatize invades all sectors, all services, even when common sense screams for us to pause and reconsider. One of the most painfully thoughtless examples of this stampede is the privatization of U.S. prisons.

The initial justification for privatizing prisons was that it would save the taxpayers a ton of money. It hasn't. A 1996 study by the General Accounting Office found "no credible evidence" of such savings. But money isn't really the issue. Liberty and dignity are. Investors in prison corporations expect to double their money every five years. To meet that goal, costs per inmate must be minimized, the jail cells must be fully occupied, and the inmates themselves must be exploited. Private prisons are dangerous for prisoners and for our social fabric.

In 1992, Tennessee turned over operation of one state prison, SouthCentral, to the Correction Corporation of America, a company less than 20 years old that runs almost half the private prisons in the country. In 1996, state investigators compared the operations of South Central with those of a comparable state-run prison.The investigators found the costs to the taxpayer of the private prison were about the same as those of a public facility. Since a portion of the private plant's revenue goes to investors, less is available for prison care and guard training. As a result, as Eric Bates reports in The Nation, the CCA prison has become a dangerous place. The employee turnover rate was double that at state prisons. Violent incidents have been 50 percent more common than in state facilities.

The best way to maximize the revenue generated by each prisoner is to maximize the cell time of that prisoner.

A 1992 study by the New Mexico Corrections Department showed that women at prisons run by CCA lost "goodtime" -- which leads to weekend leaves or early release, both of which reduce corporate revenues -- nearly eight times as often as men at a state-run lockup.

There is another way prison corporations make money from their wards: having their slave labor compete with free labor. Sales of prison goods soared from $392 million in 1980 to $1.31 billion in 1994. Prison laborers now make clothes, car parts, computer components, shoes, furniture and many other items. Although state prisons pay minimum wage to inmates, Counterpunch magazine notes that private prisons pay as little as 17 cents an hour. The maximum pay scale at a CCA prison in Tennessee is 50 cents an hour for "highly skilled positions." One Texas state representative even suggested touting "competitive" prison labor in order to lure Nike into shifting production from Indonesia to Texas.

Since the profits of private prison corporations largely depend on expansion, the industry uses its increasing clout to lobby for more severe sentencing laws, like the three-strikes-and-you're-out law in California. Indeed, CCA has become one of the most generous campaign contributors in California. The California corrections officers association is the secondmost generous lobby in Sacramento. Ten years ago just five private prisons existed, housing about 2,000inmates. Today some 140 prisons, housing almost 70,000 inmates, are ownedor administered by private companies.

The private prison population may increase by 500 percent over the next decade. Meanwhile, the number of prisoners in this country has more than doubled since 1980, Today we have the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. In 1995, for thefirst time, more money was spent building new prisons than new universities.We have created an incentive structure dangerous to those in jails, and that same incentive structure endangers those of us outside of jails as well.

The new ownership structure of prisons rewards investors for imprisoning us and keeping us in prison and exploiting us while there.This is a bad idea run amok. It's time to blow the whistle and declare a moratorium on all further privatization of prisons.

Morris is a Twin Cities author, lecturer and consultant. Readers can write to him at 1313 Fifth St. S.E.. Suite 306, Minneapolis, Minn. 55414.