Of Prisoners and Payouts

When I was doing time here in California, inmates used to joke about prisoners in other states unlucky enough to be plucked from their general populations to serve as private prison guinea pigs. Though we heard some volunteered, it was said most were too doped up to argue or had requested an out-of-state transfer without knowing where they’d be going or how their receiving facilities were being run. Suckers.

They were doomed and we were fortunate that California hosted no privately operated prisons at the time: some southern states had several up and running. But with Bank of America investing hugely in the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), followed by Wells Fargo and others, for-profit prisons were about to explode. 

The private prison industry has grown by more than 350% over the past 15 years. But with so little to go on back then, our mockery was based less on precedent than on imagining what it would be like if the facility in which we were housed was suddenly taken over by a corporation.

Our unionized guards had us fired up too, with stories of gross mismanagement, bargain-priced thugs-for-hire, and cheapskate corporate Wardens serving inmates dog food. “If something kicks off in there, no way are they’re gonna tell the whole story,” said one. Anything that might generate bad PR – bribe-hungry guards, brutal conditions, amped-up violence – would get buried. And every word came true.

With reduced regulation and profit-driven considerations setting standards for healthcare and prisoner’s rights, I came away from these conversations grateful as hell. I was serving my sentence in a nice, cozy, notoriously overcrowded state-run California prison. An inmate I knew had dropped dead of spinal meningitis while crying in pain and banging on the medical office door. Whew! Thank God it’s something for which the Department of Corrections was made to answer (after years of bureaucratic hoo haw).

We’d already been hearing stories about the relatively new, high-tech Pelican Bay State Prison, where some housing resembled the nuclear energy symbol – three triangular cells with a circular shower at the hub that rotated to slide open for each cell. Learning of this and probable future surveillance technology, my go-to reference became Omni Consumer Products, the fictional mega-corporation from RoboCop. It seems quaint by today’s standards, but back then Hollywood and science fiction offered apt comparisons.

Private prison contractors, our keepers warned, were impersonal and highly automated. As contradictory as that may seem from an unapproachable cop-groupie, the future of detention sounded like a remote control, fiber optic hell. A related joke making the rounds concerned our standard inmate complaint “Form 602.” You submit one and it’s read first by your Unit Officer, and then by a Sergeant, the Lieutenant if necessary, and finally the Watch Captain. A common linguistic shortcut employed to describe this trail was, “I’m gonna 602 the Sergeant!” That, of course, became the hilarious, “What those guinea pigs fools gon’ do when they breakfast don’t come? 602 a robot!? Whhaaa-ha-ha-ha-haaa!” (Little did we realize how real such a joke would become.)

Most California prison guards, in contrast, are clock-watchers like the rest of us. They’re human. Inmates who find a sliver of common ground can even make ‘em laugh sometimes, which makes everyone’s lives easier. (Here’s a secret: the tougher they look the louder they laugh.) Besides, between facility age and overcrowding in California’s prisons, staff’s toilets back up as often as inmates’ do, fostering a sense that everyone’s in this together, at least to some degree. I can’t really see employees of corporate prisons feeling the same. Even seen as cellblock enemies they don’t represent “the system,” they represent the parasitic virus attacking it.

A recent Prison Legal News piece ends simply with, “Some things you don’t privatize.” I couldn’t agree more. I know that states these days cough up $55-to-$70 a day to house their inmates while contractors like CCA do it for $60 or less; I get why financially strapped states, particularly so-called “right-to-work states” in which unions are prevented from meddling, see privatization as solution. Yet a) much more can and should be done to lower the costs of incarceration generally (failed drug laws and three strikes policies are good places to start), and b) it’s sort of important to consider where these cost savings are coming from, such as:

“…reducing staffing levels to the bare minimum, paying less, and keeping training costs low. The cost savings is elusive, however, because like all private prison contractors, CCA cherry-picks its population – the medium- and minimum-security prisoners who are cheaper to supervise. The expensive cases – security threats, violent offenders, escape risks, death row inmates, females, and anyone with a physical or mental ailment – typically gets assigned to a state-run institution.”

Taxpayers, get out your wallets and get in line behind shareholders and CEO compensation!

Meanwhile, on the inside, there’s a staff turnover rate four times greater than in public prisons. And that leads us to the question – and potential cost – of ultimate responsibility. What happens when a private prison fails? Do shareholders who’ve profited assume responsibility for the inmate population? Oh no, the company declares bankruptcy, the board chalks it up to lessons learned, and everyone walks away. Except the inmates, of course. The state’s left holding that costly bag, possibly made more costly by a lack of adequate supervision, ‘cause as a society we still hold government responsible for providing a functional penal system.

Years later, I’m still stopped cold by the most frightening aspect of all. No increase in lobbying dollars for expanded political influence, no amount of in-custody negligence, no PTSD-ridden former mercenary-turned-prison-guard, and no gross lack of oversight could better illustrate the very worst the private prison industry has to offer than the story of the Pennsylvania judge who got rich sentencing juveniles to his friends’ privately-owned jails. Of all of the creepy, dystopian future probabilities, this is the most alarming because it most closely resembles the regular course of how we do business in this country. If this were an SAT question, the answer would look something like:


Think about it: what if the judge sentencing you for a DUI also happens to play golf with executives from a local private prison? If he receives a percentage of the fees the company charges for each inmate remanded to its custody – or even if he receives nothing more than a free golf game and a nice lunch – there’s a good chance you’ll serve your sentence at a facility that writes it own rules.

I’d rather take my chances in a Mexican prison.

For more on private probation companies and for-profit prisons, check out these links, but for an even faster briefing watch the short clip below. It’s a bit heavy on the Right Wing Conspiracy assertions, but it’s well made and well substantiated. (Right or Left is irrelevant to me when comes to, A. excuses, and B. the corporate rape of American taxpayers who paid for me to have a second chance.)