Learning from My Students

We’re at that point in the semester when my students in Law and Public Policy are doing their team presentations–sharing the results of research via Power Points and mock debates. More than one of these presentations has taught me something I didn’t know. (This is one of the “perks” of the profession, actually–you learn a lot when you teach.)

One of the teams chose to research prison privatization, a subject about which I know very little.

They began by noting that private prisons were rare prior to 1980, that they became more common in the eighties, and that between 1990 and 2009, America experienced a 1600% increase in its prison population. Given the significant sums of money involved,  they wondered whether this dramatic increase in incarceration might be at least partially explained by contractual obligations to fill cells in those proliferating private facilities.

Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group dominate the private prison industry, and according to the students’ research, the industry is very profitable. (Corrections Corporation of America had a share price of $1 in 2000; in 2013 it was $34.34.) In one representative contract, in Tennessee, CCA was guaranteed an occupancy rate of 90%, a guarantee that required frequent moves of inmates out of public facilities and into the private ones. Both the guarantee and the frequent shuffling of prisoners are evidently common.

You don’t have to be a bleeding heart to recognize that inmates–large numbers of whom have not been convicted of violent crimes– are entitled to be treated humanely. The number of fines, lawsuits and investigations into the management of these facilities strongly suggests that the profit motive takes precedence over the provision of basic medical care, nutrition and even physical safety.

Where there’s profit, there’s usually politics, and private prisons are no exception.

In 2013, the Indiana General Assembly undertook to modernize the state’s criminal code. One of the original changes would have reduced penalties for possession of small amounts of pot; however, Governor Pence intervened, insisting that penalties for marijuana possession and dealing be increased rather than decreased.

According to a news article at the time,

 One proposed change expected to be voted on Thursday would make possession of between about one third of an ounce and 10 pounds of marijuana the lowest-level felony rather than the highest-level misdemeanor. Indiana is eighth on the list of states where GEO does its spending, as it’s sunk more than $60,000 into state elections there. It specifically contributed $12,500 to the 2012 Pence campaign, which doesn’t seem like much without context. That contribution made GEO one of Pence’s top 30 corporate contributors, ranking in front of US Steel Corp, Caterpillar, and Koch Industries.

When prisons are profit centers, the incentives are all perverse. 


  1. Professor, in Harper’s Magazine, May 2015 edition on page 18, are descriptive summaries filed in Ferguson MO from residents in their class action lawsuit against the city. The Dept of Justice has already concluded that Ferguson relied on the enforcement of code provisions to generate significant portions of revenue that targeted black residents. There are 8 paragraphs that made me so mad, I could barely finish them.

    Today’s column: I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall of your classroom to hear the report your students presented. Maybe you should encourage them to present this to the State legislature.

    And another point I wanted to share with your readers from Harper’s Index list on page 9.

    Number of years in the past decade in which the violent-crime rate in the U.S. has fallen: 8
    In which the majority of Americans have believed that crime is on the rise: 10

    Minimum number of times in 2014 that Rikers Island correction officers broke the bones of an inmate: 98

    Days of solitary confinement a S. Carolina prisoner was assigned in 2012 for threatening a prison employee: 41

    Years of solitary confinement he was assigned in 2013 for posting on Facebook: 37


    Our justice system has been laughable. There is no justice anymore, anywhere in the states. It’s no wonder that we can’t claim human rights abuses in other countries anymore when we have this system set up against citizens in our own country. We’ve become a laughing stock to humans’ rights.

  2. Sheila and ALG; all of this proves one point, CRIME PAYS…but in a back-handed way to the wrong people and to the detriment of prisoners and government alike. Private businesses reel in profits; much of it from ripping off government tax dollars and the general public. No pun or disrespect intended but; prison systems could be controlled by outsourcing jobs the way Department of Public Works outsources trash pickup and Department of Transportaiton outsources street/road repairs. This would maintian government control over a system and situation resulting from the Public Safety and Justice System of local governments.

    Pence stuck his 2 cents worth into a legal situation he based on his personal beliefs just as Jeb Bush intruded his personal beliefs into the Terry Chaivo medical situation in Florida which prolonged a battle to 15 years that ended the way HER doctors had diagnosed early on. Jeb prolonged the suffering of Terry’s husband and parents and Pence prolonged prison sentences on low-level crimes, resulting in further overcrowding in our prison system. I was mugged, robbed and hospitalized one year ago April 21st; Mark Jones’ fourth court continuance is scheduled for August 17th, still no stressing his propensity for violence against four elderly women, injuring two of us. IF he is ever sentenced, be it via trial or plea agreement, chances are his sentence will be lower than someone convicted of possession of marijuana and private business will get paid for tending to his every need.

  3. The atmosphere now is such that there is no investigative reporting connecting the dots, leaving the perps with no accountability and their contributors free to create public policy that directly benefits them, all a bargain price of a few thousand in campaign contributions. The politicians in this state sell themselves and the unsuspecting public out for almost nothing, perhaps with the understanding that a bigger reward awaits them when they leave “public service”.

  4. Sheila, there was some misreporting on the change in Indiana’s marijuana penalties a few years ago. Unfortunately it lives on through the Internet. You found and cited to a story with inaccurate information. . The House passed a bill to drastically reduce the penalties for marijuana offenses. The Senate and Pence objected wanting less of a decrease. They won out. Unfortunately some early reporting misidentified it as an increase in penalties. Later reporting corrected the mistake accurately saying the penalties were decreased from what they were originally.

  5. You also fail to mention that Indiana only has one privatized prison, New Castle. I hate privatized corrections as much as anybody but our state officials deserve credit for not going down that road despite heavy campaign contributions.

  6. Private prisons are indeed civil liberties violations and a harbinger of slave labor, paying prisoners pennies to produce products sold on the open market at standard pricing. They love pot prisoners. Generally non violent, even docile. Governor Pence just loves ensuring the state meets its quota of prisoners.

  7. Neal, Indiana only has one privatized prison, it does not have quotas like Tennessee, and Pence did not increase the penalties for marijuana. They were decreased not increased

  8. There is what I think is a wrong impression in some reporting like this and that is that both business people and politicians have become more evil somehow.

    I think instead they are reacting in perfectly predictable ways to our circumstances those being democracy, mass culture creating media technology, and capitalism.

    Corporations are by definition focused on profit creation and growth. There is no reason to expect any other behavior from them. They also are required to use standard accounting practice which has to ignore externalities.

    Mass media technology is a nearly 24/7 conduit into every citizens lives. On it cultural creation software can inflict on our senses whatever reality money can buy. Culture by definition is our natural reaction to observing the behaviors of others we consider like us and adopting them.

    Democracy turns power over to culture. What becomes American culture is reflected in politics.

    One consequence of this vombination is that our wealth has been redistributed to higly favor the few and punish the many making artificial wealth redistribution a self sustaining reality. In fact a growth scenario.

    None of what is reported here and other places as being anti social disruptive and unsustainable behavior should surprise us in the least given capitalism, mass media and democracy.

    We can continue down this path until it all collapses (not long now) from running out of resources or Mother Nature’s revenge or we can change capitalism, or democracy, or mass media culture creation.

    I personally hate to think of any America without democracy and capitalism.

    But I don’t know how to get artificial cul5ure creation out of our homes.

  9. Paul–Thanks for the correction. (I saw two or three stories, and they all reported an increase; if that was erroneous, my apologies for the error.)

  10. Privatized government operations also don’t have to meet all the obligations of publicly operated agencies unless the government has the foresight to think of every possible eventuality that might occur and addresses that in the contract. Texas taxpayers discovered this years ago when prisons there were first privatized. Such prisons had no obligation to pursue and rearrest escaped convicts – an obligation which publicly operated prisons normally assumed. If the privatization contract didn’t provide for prison maintenance and repairs, the taxpayers remained responsible for those costs as well.

    When charter school folks took over some Gary schools, they complained that they weren’t getting enough money to make necessary maintenance and repairs on aging school buildings. (School takeovers are another source of privatization). The Gary
    complaint resulted in lawsuits between the charter school and the Gary school board.
    The board said in essence, you wanted to take over the school, so the problems are yours. In the meantime, maintenance of the public’s school buildings was deferred.

  11. The privatization of prisons and the need to fill cells/beds intersects with issues of race. Michelle Alexander argues persuasively that the incarceration of large numbers of African Americans is part of a system of racial oppression – the “New Jim Crow” as her book is titled.

  12. Read “Slavery by Another Name” by Doug Blackmon. You will quickly discover that this has been going on since the Civil War. Cashing in on prison labor is as old as time, but now it includes whites and Hispanics. …and then they came for me…

  13. The idea that the “Market” has this scientific basis like an Einstein Equation is bogus. The notion that Capitalism represents a “natural balance” like the number of lions a given area can support is like wise bogus. Humans determine in the final analysis what the “Market” will do. Humans bring all their own emotions and motivations to the market.

    The philosophy that Privatization brings the strengths of the Capitalist Market to the Government without any of Capitalism’s failures is like wise false. The list of Capitalism’s failures are nearly endless – Ford’s Edsel, the Savings and Loans Institutions that went bankrupt, mortgage companies that made toxic loans, etc.

    Look at this way – would you expect the Utilities to push an aggressive campaign of conservation when they make their money based upon sales of energy?? Would you expect the oil companies to push the Government and Auto Manufacturers to increase mileage on autos or stop making gas guzzlers altogether??? The Market has moved manufacturing off shore not because foreign workers have more manual dexterity than Americans but because Third World Countries do not have the protections Americans have. So why would a Corporate Prison or Jail System have any incentives to rehabilitate or legalize Pot??

  14. Currently Marion County Jail # 2 is under the management of CCA. The real moral issue is that we are using human misery for profit. The same was true when Governor Daniels tried to privatize public assistance. Capitalism is not appropriate in all areas of community life.

  15. Louie, the basis of capitalism is the free market which realistic proponents believe can be maintained by proper regulation. Keep the field level for everybody, buyers and sellers and creators of both products and the means to create them.

    What has forever tilted the field is mass media brand marketing. The means to buy culture creation and through those means create culture that values what creators have to sell. Buyers are not free to choose but are created needing that product or service.

    The buyers are slaved to the creators.

    We can’t seem to figure out a path back to the original value of capitalism and democracy.

  16. There may only be one private prison in Indiana, but I wonder how many jails are privatized? I know for certain Marion County Jail II is run by CCA. I am not certain, but I believe Liberty Hall across the way is as well. I’d be interested in some investigation being made into what hand their corporate interests are playing in the rush to push through the proposed Marion County Justice Center.

  17. Pete: Was N. America the first experience in the system called Capitalism? We know the single driving economic factor for more than 300 years was slavery. Capitalism WAS slavery. Like socialism, true Capitalism has never been tried until now, and without a protected source of income, it falls far short.

    Second to a benevolent dictator, well regulated Capitalism would be great. But that would be quite like well regulated Socialism.

  18. Earl, to me the baby that has to be saved is the drive to solve problems collaboratively and inovatively. The bathwater to be thrown out (because it’s unaffordable now) is measuring progress and success only economically.

    What is a more complete measurement system? It seems to me it has to be based on sustainability and personal satisfaction. People striving for more contribution and satisfaction not more stuff.

    It seems to me that there are people living lives today that would rate high on a scale of satisfaction who reject economics as having any import as a life goal.

    This is a cultural shift IMO. I think the most pertinent question is how to create such a culture. Unfortunately I believe the answer to that transitional question is trauma. The present culture has to collapse under the weight of its deficiencies before a different culture becomes compelling.

    Out of necessity from the ashes will rise from innovative and collaborative problem solving a workable new culture and the systems it requires.

  19. The tragedy is that when the culture does collapse, there is no guarantee a better society will arise. Will people grasp what values (or lack of such) led us off track? Will they be able to keep it from happening again? So much corruption exists and has existed always, I suppose….but it does seem terrible that the people are being manipulated to such an extent these days. Orwell reflected on the totalitarian state and how it arises…and I think one of his most powerful messages was that well-meaning people see it coming and frequently lack the power to overcome it. Thoreau and Emerson had it right about the inevitable corruption of institutions. I suppose the best we can do is try to fight back fascist tendencies, but I am afraid you are right Pete to see trauma on the horizon.

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