Prisons: Pew on U.S., Monbiot on U.K.

by Chris Sturr | March 03, 2009

Lots of prison news today. On the U.S. prison boom, a new study from the Pew Center on the States, 1 in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections, reports that one in thirty-one people in the United States, is either in prison or on probation or parole, which makes for 7.3 million people under correctional supervision. The study emphasizes the cost to state budgets:

Corrections is a prime target for cuts. Last year it
was the fastest expanding major segment of state
budgets, and over the past two decades, its
growth as a share of state expenditures has been
second only to Medicaid. State corrections costs
now top $50 billion annually and consume one in
every 15 discretionary dollars.

An article in today’s Boston Herald reports that according to the Pew study, our fair commonwealth of Massachusetts ranks fifth among states in the number of people under correctional supervision: 1 in 24, or 206,241 people. Georgia ranked the highest, with one in thirteen, or 562,763.

Today’s New York Times has an article on the study, with a great graphic of what percentage of spending in the various states goes to corrections.

Meanwhile, today’s Guardian has an article by George Monbiot about the U.S. and U.K. prison booms. He starts out recounting the outrageous tale of those two Penna. judges who took kickbacks for sending lots of juveniles to privately-run facilities. The rest of the article covers the privatization of prisons in the U.K. and how it’s accelerated the prison boom there. Hat-tip to George’s biggest fan, Larry P. Hat-tip to Lois Ahrens of the Real Cost of Prisons Project for the articles on the Pew study. Here’s Monbiot:

This revolting trade in human lives is an incentive to lock people up

The inmate population has soared since Britain started running prisons for profit. Little wonder lobbyists want Titan jails

It’s a staggering case; more staggering still that it has scarcely been mentioned on this side of the ocean. Last week two judges in Pennsylvania were convicted of jailing some 2,000 children in exchange for bribes from private prison companies.

Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan sent children to jail for offences so trivial that some of them weren’t even crimes. A 15-year-old called Hillary Transue got three months for creating a spoof web page ridiculing her school’s assistant principal. Ciavarella sent Shane Bly, then 13, to boot camp for trespassing in a vacant building. He gave a 14-year-old, Jamie Quinn, 11 months in prison for slapping a friend during an argument, after the friend slapped her. The judges were paid $2.6m by companies belonging to the Mid-Atlantic Youth Services Corp for helping to fill its jails. This is what happens when public services are run for profit.

It’s an extreme example, but it hints at the wider consequences of the trade in human lives created by private prisons. In the US and the UK they have a powerful incentive to ensure that the number of prisoners keeps rising.

The US is more corrupt than the UK, but it is also more transparent. There the lobbyists demanding and receiving changes to judicial policy might be exposed, and corrupt officials identified and prosecuted. The UK, with a strong tradition of official secrecy and a weak tradition of scrutiny and investigative journalism, has no such safeguards.

The corrupt judges were paid by the private prisons not only to increase the number of child convicts but also to shut down a competing prison run by the public sector. Taking bribes to bang up kids might be novel; shutting public facilities to help private companies happens – on both sides of the water – all the time.

The Wall Street Journal has shown how, as a result of lobbying by the operators, private jails in Mississippi and California are being paid for non- existent prisoners. The prison corporations have been guaranteed a certain number of inmates. If the courts fail to produce enough convicts, they get their money anyway. This outrages taxpayers in both states, which have cut essential public services to raise these funds. But there is a simple means of resolving this problem: you replace ghost inmates with real ones. As the Journal, seldom associated with raging anti-capitalism, observes: “Prison expansion [has] spawned a new set of vested interests with stakes in keeping prisons full and in building more … The result has been a financial and political bazaar, with convicts in stripes as the prize.”

Even as crime declines, lawmakers are pressed by their sponsors to increase the rate of imprisonment. The US has, by a very long way, the world’s highest proportion of people behind bars: 756 prisoners per 100,000 people, just over 1% of the adult population. Similarly wealthy countries have around one-tenth of this rate of imprisonment.

Like most of its really bad ideas, the last Conservative government imported private jails from the US. As Stephen Nathan, author of a forthcoming book about prison privatisation in the UK, has shown, the notion was promoted by the home affairs select committee, which in 1986 visited prisons run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). When the corporation told them that private provision in the US improved prison standards and delivered good value for money, the committee members failed to check its claims. They recommended that the government should put the construction and management of prisons out to tender “as an experiment”.

Read the rest of the article.

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