I certainly didn’t think I would be citing Fox News in this post, but they actually did have the best breakdown comparing prison costs to the cost of our education system. While I am a teacher and can see first hand the effects that budget funding (or lack thereof) has in our schools, these issues should be important to EVERYONE. Education is the foundation of our economy and our society. And students who receive a poor education or who drop out are much more likely to land themselves in prison: 68% of males in state and federal prison do not have a high school diploma. 

In my state, Arizona, our governor and legislators recently approved a budget that cut education funds while increasing private prison beds. While the push back from community members, students, and educators stopped some of the most egregious cuts, I can’t help but wonder if we really are building that school-to-prison pipeline that everyone keeps talking about. 

1 US prison pop 1925-2013 for web

taxpayers_prisonsThis excerpt from the aptly named “The Dirty Thirty: Nothing to Celebrate about Thirty Years of Corrections Corporation of America” shows exactly what happens when you offer big contracts to a corporation that makes oodles of money off of incarcerating Americans. Big money means big time lobbying efforts which of course, leads to more big money for the corporations. We shouldn’t be shocked that America has the largest prison population in the world. And guess who pays for it? No wonder we don’t have any room in our budget for simple things like education.

Over the last 30 years, CCA has benefited from the dramatic rise in incarceration and detention in the United States. Since the company’s founding in 1983, the incarcerated population has risen by more than 500 percent to more than 2.2 million people.[1] Meanwhile, the number of people held in immigration detention centers has exploded from an average daily population of 131 people to over 32,000 people on any given day.[2]

In addition to privatized prison houses, many states have also opted for privatized healthcare within the prisons:

Florida Governor Rick Scott campaigned on privatizing health care in Florida’s prisons, and that is exactly what he has delivered. The Post investigation uncovered sky rocketing inmate deaths, as referrals to outside doctors have dropped by nearly 50 percent, and prescription pain management medications are replaced with over the counter drugs like Tylenol and ibuprofen. One inmate complained of lumps in her arm and was given a warm compress, Tylenol and solitary confinement. Six weeks later, she was dead of cancer that had spread throughout her body.

But what about the costs? Is it cheaper for us to go with private prisons? According to a recent fact check, after adjusting for medical costs (apparently only healthy prisoners go to private prisons hmmmmm), private prisons are more expensive:

Without adjusting for the increased medical costs imposed on state-run prisons, a 2010 Corrections Department study found that daily per inmate costs were cheaper in private prisons, at $57.97 as opposed to $60.66.

However, when adjusting for medical costs, the results flipped with daily per inmate costs cheaper in state-run prisons at $48.42 compared with $53.02 in private prisons.

Also, keep in mind that many of the contracts with private prisons, like CCA, include a clause that mandates that the private prisons maintain 80-100% occupancy. This means that even if crime is going down and there are less prisoners, the state is still going to use taxpayer money to pay for prison beds that may or may not be needed. Where is the motivation to keep people out of prison?

As noted by the ACLU, some states have opted not to renew their contracts with CCA due to poor management and supervision in the prisons:

The grisly records of these CCA prisons exemplify why handing control of prisons over to for-profit companies is a recipe for abuse, neglect, and misconduct. A study conducted by the Idaho Department of Corrections in 2008 found that there were four times more prisoner-on-prisoner assaults at ICC than at Idaho’s other seven prisonscombined. As detailed in the ACLU’s 2011 report, Banking on Bondage, several studies suggest that prisoners in for-profit prisons face greater threats to their safety than those in publicly-run prisons – a possible reflection of the higher staff turnover in private prisons, which can result in inexperienced guards walking the tiers. Additionally, numerous religious groups – including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the United Methodist Church – have condemned the perverse incentives involved in for-profit incarceration, often emphasizing the inherent conflict between the goal of rehabilitation and the company’s profit motive.

Unfortunately, the states apparently don’t plan on putting the prisons back in the hands of the state government, but rather, plan to give the contracts to different private companies – and for some reason, expect a different result?

“Yolanda in Limbo” details the struggles of an undocumented woman who was arrested and detained after calling the police when the father of her children refused to allow her to see her kids. While she went through multiple trials and appeals, Yolanda was detained for over 2 years in a Corrections Corporation of America prison in Eloy, Arizona.

If you don’t care about the humanity of it, think about the mountains of money. We, as taxpayers, paid $122/day for her to be imprisoned when she very well could have  been given an ankle monitoring bracelet at a cost of $6/day.

“Every day that Yolanda sat in Eloy, pining for her children, was a day that the Corrections Corporation of America got another $122.

CCA is the largest for-profit private prison corporation in the United States, and Eloy is just one of fourteen immigration detention centers that it runs for Uncle Sam. The work pays nicely. In 2012 alone, Yolanda and the other immigrants who ate the starchy meals and slept in the cramped cells in its many detention centers helped the corporation turn a profit of $206 million in its detention enterprises alone. CCA has a much larger business in for-profit criminal prisons, but the bull market in locking up immigrant mothers like Yolanda helped double its stock prices between 2010 and 2013.

The U.S. Congress has been more than helpful in furthering the private-prison-business boom. In 2004 the country had 18,000 detainee beds. Five years later, in 2009, lawmakers added the first-ever “bed mandate”: ICE was now required to incarcerate no fewer than 33,400 detainees each and every day. In 2014, Congress tweaked the number up yet again, pushing the mandate to an even 34,000, most of them in for-profit prisons.

The bed bonanza doesn’t come cheap. By 2013, the federal government was paying out $2 billion a year to detain the immigrants tossing and turning in those beds; the daily tab ran to $5.6 million. Immigrant advocates pleaded in vain for the nation to switch to cheaper—and more humane—techniques that would still guarantee that detainees like Yolanda showed up for their hearings. If she’d been allowed to go home to her kids in an ankle bracelet that kept track of her whereabouts, the feds would have shelled out a bargain $6 a day—the average cost of bracelet monitoring in 2012, the year I met her.”

Undocumented immigrants are easy targets due to a whole host of reasons, including language barriers and lack of resources. Recently, dozens of women in Karnes County Residential Center in Texas have accused prison guards of sexual assault and rape. This center houses families who have been detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And as you might have guessed, it is owned and operated by another for-profit prison corporation, The Geo Group. While protests and petitions have mobilized, a much larger effort must be undertaken if our society wants to be rid of these for-profit prisons that are so poorly managed and staffed.

Curious to know if your state has privatized the prison industry? Check out this cool interactive map that will show you where the private prisons are located in the states.

Thankfully, not all states have bought into these for-profit companies, but I urge you to be aware of what is going on and make your voice heard. We need to be incentivizing systems that work: systems that lower prison rates, lower incident rates, and lower expenses. Just be mindful that you might start to hear this same pitch from the private prison companies themselves – apparently aware that their bubble is about to burst, they are trying to get their foot into the “treatment” model as well.