Behind the Statistics

Linda Greenhouse, an always insightful observer of law and courts, has written an excellent column for the New York Times about the Trump Administration’s reversal of Obama’s policy phasing out private prisons.

For Trump loyalist who keep pointing out that the stock market is doing well, she provides a “think about this” example of just what is fueling that optimism:

So the Trump administration is putting the welcome mat back out for private prisons, just as candidate Donald Trump said he would do, reversing the Obama administration’s policy of phasing them out for federal prisoners. It’s no wonder that shares in some of the nation’s biggest for-profit prison companies soared by double digits the day after the presidential election, making them among the biggest winners in the immediate postelection rally.

Greenhouse also provides us with a stark reminder of the “cost controls” that allow private prisons to make money. Her example comes from Indiana.

A decision on Feb. 21 by the federal appeals court in Chicago came just in time to remind us that privatization is a really bad idea. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed a federal district judge’s dismissal and sent back for trial a case with the most appalling facts, brought by a dead prisoner’s mother against the company to which the Indiana Department of Corrections had outsourced its inmates’ medical care.

The opening paragraph of the opinion by Chief Judge Diane P. Wood tells the story: “Nicholas Glisson entered the custody of the Indiana Department of Corrections on September 3, 2010, upon being sentenced for dealing in a controlled substance (selling one prescription pill to a friend who turned out to be a confidential informant). Thirty-seven days later, he was dead from starvation, acute renal failure, and associated conditions.”

After reciting the facts of this particular, egregious example, Greenhouse notes that she has two reasons for her focus on the Indiana case.

The first is to show the recklessness of President Trump’s wave-of-the-hand decision to retain the private prisons that a Justice Department study last year concluded “do not maintain the same level of safety and security” as those operated by the Bureau of Prisons. Sally Q. Yates, the holdover deputy attorney general whom President Trump fired last month for refusing to defend his travel ban, relied on that conclusion in announcing that private prison contracts would not be renewed and that the 22,000 federal inmates housed in those prisons would be cut to 14,700 by May 2017 and eventually to zero.

Greenhouse’s second reason was to highlight the stark differences between the judge’s opinion upholding the right of the mother to sue and the original decision, by a different judge, dismissing the suit. As she pointed out, the choice of the people who render judgment in our system–the judges nominated by the President  and confirmed by the Senate–is important. Those choices matter.

When I read about this case, and the absolutely unnecessary death of a “felon” whose crime consisted of the sale of one prescription pill, it reminded me of something else that matters:  the harm done by policies rooted in nothing other than social disapproval –what the Founders called “the passions of the majority.” Greenhouse has provided us with one example–drug laws that sweep far too widely and impose penalties wildly disproportionate to the offenses. The Trump Administration is in the process of providing us with another–the indiscriminate deportation of people whose only “crime” is coming to our communities without documentation.

Everyone disapproves of drug abuse, but not everyone agrees on the difference between “use” and “abuse”–or even the difference between harmful and harmless substances.

Similarly, everyone disapproves of illegal entry into the country in the abstract, but when we fail to distinguish between people who were brought here as young children by their parents,  people who have been longtime assets to their communities or who have served in America’s armed forces, and the “bad hombres” of Trump’s rash rhetoric, we aren’t just being inhumane, we are supporting measures that are both costly and stupid.

It matters who our judges are. It really matters who the President is.



  1. “The passions of the majority” reflects Madison’s wariness of the popular opinion, which he felt strongly enough about to recommend at the Constitutional Convention that Congress have the power to vacate any bill passed by any state legislature. Fortunately, that concept was not adopted, because the Constitution would never have been ratified if it had been included in the document submitted to the states.

  2. Thanks, Pat. Tell me, where are the patriots today?
    I can see only snakes with forked tongues.

  3. I cannot tell you, OMG, where the patriots are today, but I can tell you where they are not.

    They are not on the boards of private prison companies. They are not anywhere on Wall Street. They are not running oil companies, chemical companies, airlines, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, or insurance companies. Don’t look for them in the pews of evangelical churches or on the TV shows of evangelicals. They cannot be found in the ranks of the Tea Party, alt right, nor talk radio. They are not in the back rooms of the US Congress, the White House or the Indiana State House.

    Patriots in this time? Not so much. Greedy traitors? Running the show.

  4. America has chosen to put the foxes in charge of the henhouses. The question is will we wake up and stop the carnage before it gets out of hand. So far, progressives have been energized. Can they keep this level of energy through 2018 and 2020? 2018 is the first real opportunity to stop it. 2020 is the key to stopping it for at least 10 years.

  5. Question; does the term”private prisons” refer to the prison facility or the management by private business? Remembering a prison riot at the New Castle Correctional Facility, April 24, 2007, I Googled information but found little follow-up regarding the final disposition of the charges by and against the prisoners and prison staff. The facility is – or was at the time – managed by GEO Group, Inc., of Boca Raton, Florida, a private company who manages state owned prisons. They are touted as being: “Is the world’s leading provider of private correctional and detention management and community reentry services to government agencies around the world.”

    At the time of the riot there were approximately 1,000 Indiana prisoners and 630 from Arizona. The article stated the Arizona prisoners were abused by local prisoners for obeying the prison rules; they removed their shirts in defiance of and to call attention to their treatment. Newscasts during and following this brief but destructive riot with only a few minor injuries reported, stated that the prisoners from Arizona rioted primarily for being moved so far from home that no family members could visit. The contract between Indiana DOC and Arizona guaranteed that no violent prisoners would be transported to New Castle but several were found to have violent conviction records.

    The later news reports showed tours of the facility with large areas vacant; reportedly due to lack of funds to provide security and basic prisoner care. This was at a time when complaints of overcrowded conditions in Indiana jails and prisons were frequently headline news. Are there no qualified Indiana residents to be trained in prison work, does Indiana not have enough criminals to incarcerate that we must import from other states? Was the amount of stipend per Arizona prisoner (plus the cost of the private, out of state, management group) worth the transport and care of the prisoners or – like the school voucher system – did it result in further drain on local tax dollars?

    Trump is again adding tax burdens to state level governments already burdened with local needs and responsibilities. Carrier debt alone here in Indiana, caused by Trump and resulting in saving approximately 300 jobs and NOT over 1,000 as he bragged about, is a tax burden we have not yet begun to pay for due to his interference at state level government. Maybe he considers removing Pence from our midst is rewarding the state; where do our Republican elected officials, at state and federal levels, stand on this reinstatement of “private prisons” and fulfilling his other nonsensical and costly campaign threats?

  6. JoAnn:
    The republicans seem to have been in lock step on the Trump agenda until yesterday when a few starting pushing back against TrumpCare, as proposed. I see this as the first crack in the foundation and hope TrumpCare further divides the republicans and identifies those that care about something other than money.

    Maybe some republicans will make the case that privately managed prisons are just too expensive and result in too much collateral damage. Or maybe not.

  7. As always, The Right’s only motivation is SHORT TERM FINANCIAL GAIN, wrapped in pseudo-religious phoniness. It keeps the money pipeline to Congress intact. Damn the consequences. Trump is only doing what the Republicans since Reagan have secretly wanted.

  8. What Theresa said – she is right on. Now if lobbyists for the private prison industry can only get the legislatures throughout the land to call for 50 years for jaywalking or speeding. . . .

  9. We should be spending all of our energy working to disenfranchise uneducated white people. As it stands today democrats spend all their time earnestly arguing against obvious evils like private prisons, while republicans proceed with their plan to destroy our nation and install a corporatist nightmare state. The other side isn’t listening, because they are either too stupid or brainwashed to understand our arguments, or they are the sociopathic manipulators of the stupid.

    As we rightfully explain to the psychopath why murder is wrong, he pretends to be listening while dismembering us piece by piece. When are we going to realize that to defeat the psycho we have to fight him on his level?

  10. Or to put it another way, we are pacifists trying to win a war. We can die superior like our hero Jesus, or we can fight to win. Do democrats have it in them to fight to win? They did before, when people remembered what true economic subjugation was.

  11. “Over It” nailed it. The slow walking coup d’état is now firmly entrenched and the only way we’re going to stop it to be defiant in its face and to fight it. That means we have to counter every lie, every half truth, every propaganda campaign they make and work as hard as we can to get these people out of office and out of government as fast as we can. As this blows up over the repeal of the ACA and everything else that they have in mind we need to nail them in town hall meetings and if they don’t show up for them scream bloody murder when they don’t. We need to work to launch recall efforts to capitalize on all the angst that the people have now as the Republicans roll out every draconian plan after draconian plan and get these clowns out of office.

    We can either stand back and watch and let everything that we care about go down the drain or we can stand our ground and fight this and expose both them and their moribund ultra right wing agenda for this country for what it really is – oligarchical slavery. We cannot allow ourselves to find ourselves in the position where we wish that we had done this when what they envision for us is already in place and tearing everything down around us. If we wait until then then this country will go down the drain and us right along with it.

    This is the greatest threat to our democracy that we have ever faced from within and we have to be able to rise to the occasion, expose it for what really is, and defeat it. We owe this to our forebearers, to ourselves and those that will follow us to do so. To do otherwise we will forfeit the right to be called Americans.

  12. YES! Ditto “Over it” and Tom – sometimes you need to fight fire with fire or nothing will change. If people don’t stand up for what they believe is right, then eventually there will be nothing to stand up for. Instead of focusing on stupid tweets – easy as it is – why aren’t the Democrats educating the public about everything going on behind the scenes and under the radar?

  13. I am a Democrat and I think their inaction is a reflection of their own oligarchs. A congressman or senator or even a president is something that every wealthy person strives to own.

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