Private Prisons And Perverse Incentives

Every once in a while, my city gives me something to brag about. Most recently, that’s the current administration’s approach to Criminal Justice.

A recent article from Fortune Magazine, of all places, sets it out.

When the city heads to Wall Street Thursday to borrow $610 million to build a jail and criminal justice complex on the site of an old coking factory, it’s betting it can better house criminals and rehabilitate them on its own. That means CoreCivic, which has run a Marion County jail for two decades, will lose the contract when the new one opens.

The decision to sever ties with CoreCivic is part of a shift in policy-making that seeks to address a cycle of recidivism that keeps sending repeat offenders back to jail. It joins other governments nationwide, including California, that are reconsidering a reliance on the private companies that stepped in as the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing laws caused inmate populations to soar, leaving more than half of the states paying businesses to incarcerate their residents.

There is a mountain of data detailing what’s wrong with private prisons. (When my graduate students choose to write their research papers on the subject of for-profit prisons, their conclusions range from highly critical to horrified, and for good reason.) Zach Adamson, Vice-President of the Indianapolis City-County Council is quoted in the article with what may be the best summary of the problem with prisons for profit:

“The idea that there would be profit to be made through the imprisonment of our neighbors is something that’s abhorrent to a number of people—many of our constituents cannot process that,” said Zach Adamson, vice president of the council that oversees the consolidated government of Indianapolis and Marion County. “Criminal justice is not getting better as long as our primary concern is looking to cut corners and save costs.” (emphasis supplied)

In 2016, the city convened a task force to consider ways Indianapolis could cut crime and address jail overcrowding. The task force recommended addressing “underlying causes,” in an effort to reduce both crime and the $440 million dollars Indianapolis spends on criminal justice each year–far and away the city’s biggest expense.

The issues facing Indianapolis are hardly unique: some 40% of people detained in the country’s jails are mentally ill and up to 85 percent suffer from substance abuse (with respect to those who are mentally ill, psychiatrists tell us that substance abuse is an effort at “self-medicating.”)

The complex will consolidate the courthouse, its jails, and rehabilitation operations in one modern site. The city-county council voted in April 2018 not to privatize the new lockup, dealing a blow to CoreCivic, which has managed a facility there since 1997.

“The goal of the jail system shouldn’t be to fill the beds,” said Andy Mallon, corporation counsel for the government. “We’re trying to reduce crime and reduce the number of people who are involved in crime.”

Mallon’s observation is at the heart of what’s wrong with privatizing these elements of the criminal justice system. Private prison companies are in business to fill beds, and to do so as cheaply as possible, not to rehabilitate offenders. Their lobbyists work to criminalize additional behaviors and increase prison terms for offenses already on the books–measures that feed their bottom lines.

Their goal isn’t public safety, it’s profit, and the big private prison companies donate generously to politicians in order to protect those profits.

During the Obama Administration, the Department of Justice and several state governments  responded to the research, recognized the existence of the perverse incentives, and began  terminating contracts with companies like GEO and CoreCivic. Then, of course, we got Trump, and headlines like these:”Trump’s First Year Has Been the Private Prison Industry’s Best.”  and “Trump’s Immigrant-Detention Plans Benefit Private Prison Operators.”

In Indianapolis, I am happy to say, the city has chosen to bring best practices to bear on its criminal justice problems, to evaluate those it incarcerates in order to determine appropriate interventions– and to stop paying for-profit companies to warehouse offenders.

 

 

25 thoughts on “Private Prisons And Perverse Incentives

  1. imagine a living wage job when they get out…many would never be there if such a past existed.since corp America has taken the wages,and given squalor in return..many of those politcians,who accept money from such low life ideas,should themselves be made to spend a month inside,looking out,and why. the best deterant to crime,a good paying job,with a future. keep looking at wall streets profits,over the stagnate wages in our so called economic growth,that has only been diverted into wall streets pockets……best wishes

  2. I wish them well in this endeavor but am concerned about the fact that every attribute in their proposal goes against the very foundation of Wall Street…that of making money. This is and has been a much needed change for many decades in this city, through Republican and Democratic administrations. To me, the relatively new concept of private prisons is tied to the old south prison system of leasing convicts to private companies with the prison system officials making money on the misery of inmates. The officials in turn contributed to the politicians who supported leasing convicts.

    “Their goal isn’t public safety, it’s profit, and the big private prison companies donate generously to politicians in order to protect those profits.”

    Can Indianapolis, under the guidance of a Democratic Mayor in this bright red state, buck the “Follow the money” operation of Wall Street if they will make no money from the deal? Those for-profit privately owned prisons are part and parcel of the Republican corporate system just as our entire health care system in this country is. And this is in the middle of the 2020 presidential election scramble by a mass of Democratic candidates wanting to oust Trump who is taking full credit for the money pouring into Wall Street and Pence sitting behind him to work against this coming out of Indiana at this time.

    It is a David vs. Goliath battle again; our 2019 November Democratic candidates need to add this issue to their campaign foundations…which we are still waiting to hear about. Lives are in the balance in this vital endeavor; a failure will maintain this city and state continuing to be the dumping ground for ill treated and abused former prisoners.

  3. How nice to get such good news about Indiana and Indianapolis in particular. Kudos to the Mayor and the City County Council for this breath of fresh air. From Mr. Adamson’s quote one can detect a ray of morality entering the political decision making in our local government. Now, if we can just export this ray of moral hope to the State House we might just move Indiana into the twenty-first century.

  4. Great news for Indianapolis.

    My county has been trying to figure out a way to come up with the money to build a new jail due to overpopulation. I believe our legislature has to reverse the changes they made years ago at the behest of the for profit private prisons to create new felonies and extend prison terms.

  5. Sheila writes, “Private prison companies are in business to fill beds, and to do so as cheaply as possible, not to rehabilitate offenders.”

    Take out “private prison” and replace with all other capitalistic/corporate endeavors. There is zero social responsibility. The goal is maximizing shareholder wealth. Period.

    The health care industry is interested in filling beds as well — not preventing diseases.

    Kudos to Indy, but they could pressure Indiana to legalize marijuana and then release all inmates suffering a long sentence for dealing/possessing pot.

    When you focus on the real criminal element, their decisions might take on a different strategy. For instance, my understanding is the Pedophile population in the GEO prison located in New Castle is unmercifully high, which and the wages to work there are abysmal. Nobody is rehabbing child sex abusers. I don’t care what the research says on the subject.

    Selling or possessing pot is NOT a crime against society. This is a racial issue and shame on the Clintons for supporting these long sentences.

    And last I checked, the percentage of blacks in prison far exceeds the rate of minorities in society. Therefore, it’s a racial issue.

    Legalize pot and cancel the sentences of those serving time. Then reevaluate the need for a new prison. We may find there isn’t such a demand if we focus mainly on those who threaten society with their presence.

    If I can’t get a job or food stamps because of a drug sentence, guess how I’m going to make money to survive?

    Once again, recidivism is always in play when looking at drug dealers. Pot should not be classified as a “drug.” Our system forces people back into the same behaviors, and we wonder why these people return to prison. It’s three square meals, a cheap place to stay, and they have insurance.

    Our systems in this country are so flawed. All our institutions require overhauling.

    Politics and money are the root causes of these failures because ALL the solutions aren’t that difficult. Decriminalize marijuana now and erase the prison sentences. Then reevaluate the populations in jails/prisons.

    My good friend is a jailer and says most are mentally ill and have substance abuse. Rehabbing this population demands social capital which the state lawmakers are unwilling to spend. When Mitch closed down all the state hospitals, where did he think this population would end up?

    Indiana and Wisconsin are quickly becoming islands surrounded by states who are decriminalizing marijuana and then focusing on our extreme criminal populations.

    Why is Indiana always late to the party?

    It’s not conservatism because it’s costly to house inmates. Is our state racist? 😉

  6. Ideology too often trumps reason in this country. Private is always good and government bad. As a result, we adopt a “market” approach too often without careful thought and do not manage markets effectively when they produce perverse results. We see this in our jails and prisons but also in huge arenas like health care. Any government intervention is described as socialism.

    When was the last time we saw a socialist snow plow or a socialist soldier or firefighter?

  7. Count me in the group who can’t process how it is that we think it’s ok to privatize prisons. That’s just crazy. And it does indeed provide perverse incentives to lock people up.

    Good for Indianapolis.

  8. The two areas that suffer the most at the hands of “privatization” are health care and criminal justice. These should be exempt from any conversation about profit. Just because you can make money from something doesn’t mean you should. In our current system, both rely on the suffering of others to generate income for investors and stock holders. It is abhorrent and has no place in a civilized society.

  9. Private prisons are just a symptom of the assault on minorities and the mentally ill. Starting with the Reagan assault on mental health and mental health facilities, and basically continuing on until we’ve manufactured a crisis. When the prison systems are the biggest mental health facilities we have in this country, we have a problem. Of course privatization of our prisons and the lack of mental health facilities, made a lot of people rich because those mentally ill are in those private prisons. Mental health is something that will have to be addressed, along with the war on drugs to reduce are incarcerated population. the private sector should be involved rebuilding our mental health programs and facilities. The war on drugs especially cannabis should be completely gotten rid of. Government can legalize pot and then tax it using the money for rehabilitation and mental health. it would also reduce some of the petty turf wars selling illegal cannabis. Incarceration does not help the mentally ill, it only exacerbates the problem for those individuals. the mentally ill should not be thrown in prison, out of sight out of mind, sentencing, because there are hardly any mental health facilities left. If the mental health issues are not addressed, they’ll just be spitting into the wind.

  10. Private prisons are just a symptom of the assault on minorities and the mentally ill. Starting with the Reagan assault on mental health and mental health facilities, and basically continuing on until we’ve manufactured a crisis. When the prison systems are the biggest mental health facilities we have in this country, we have a problem. Of course privatization of our prisons and the lack of mental health facilities, made a lot of people rich because those mentally ill are in those private prisons. Mental health is something that will have to be addressed, along with the war on drugs to reduce our incarcerated population. the private sector should be involved rebuilding our mental health programs and facilities. The war on drugs especially cannabis should be completely gotten rid of. Government can legalize pot and then tax it using the money for rehabilitation and mental health. it would also reduce some of the petty turf wars selling illegal cannabis. Incarceration does not help the mentally ill, it only exacerbates the problem for those individuals. the mentally ill should not be thrown in prison, out of sight out of mind, sentencing, because there are hardly any mental health facilities left. If the mental health issues are not addressed, they’ll just be spitting into the wind.

  11. It should also be noted that for-profit prisons has this other, nefarious element: corrupting judges. Didn’t a judge in Pennsylvania recently get indicted for taking kickbacks from one of these private prisons? His sentencing “guidelines” were several hundred percent higher than normal for similar crimes. You don’t suppose….

  12. Agree with Todd and others legalize marijuana. There is no reason to spend millions probably billions of dollars activating and funding the whole criminal injustice system to put people in jail for smoking a blunt.

    “Privatization” is a disease that infests our social fabric: Schools, Prisons and the Health Care system. We even see “privatization” in the military, with paid mercenaries. “Privatization” is not a disease that effects only Republicans, we have plenty of Corporate Democrats who are stooges for Wall Street.

    We still have so-called Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, who refuse to Co-sponsor Medicare For All – H.R. 1384. More than 70 million Americans are uninsured or underinsured.

  13. You have to wonder, how many people with mental health issues could be saved if with had Medicare for All. Doctors and other Professionals could intervene before these people were shipped off to prisons.

    Meaningful, living wage jobs would be another component. Hope is what people want. However, Hope is an empty word without actions.

  14. Enlightened and dedicated public servants like Andy Mallon and Mayor Joe Hogsett make me proud to be a citizen of Indianapolis.

  15. We have a growing poverty problem in the US with some new dimensions. One is that with such evident great wealth among us, poverty stands out like a sore thumb. There used to be some dignity in the struggle up and out but like a 400 pound obese person catching up that seems overwhelming to most. Drugs are a way to mask that.

    At one time we apparently thought that by criminalizing drug related behavior we could reduce it. Apparently that doesn’t work, integrity is apparently not the root cause. Our bad. Time to learn and move on.

    There are so many changes in the times and among the people that we need to learn more about the solutions and become more creative in solving the problems and we are stuck with a government incapable of any learning.

    I’m glad to hear that Indianapolis has become one of the brighter spots in recovering from knowledge by entitlement instead of by learning. I’m exited about the country being only two years behind with a huge opportunity to catch up when the time comes.

  16. If Kamala Harris becomes our president,the Private Prison Industrial Complex will have more inmates housed in their facilities. Gotta keep that lobbyist cash coming! We should continue to imprison the truants and perhaps we can finally jail the folks that refuse to vote at all? That would be progress.Progress we can again believe in!

  17. there is also, a contract, that states, state,county,whatever will keep a 90% bed rate. thats pretty much how the south works with private cages. i was in a federal camp, (yankton,s.d.) for a few years for growing pot. the manditory minns said, one hundred of more plants,equal a kilo of weight,per plant,and sentanced as such. i had 138 actual live plants,indoors,in hydro. the feds counted another 195 starts,that never rooted,in a trash bag. hense, i was sentenced with poss with intent,to distrib,332 kilos.(my plants were 8-12 inches tall at maturity,12-26 grans of useable) @ 46- 70 some months,first time,non violent,at39.. population,white 40% black 40% mixed asian,hisp,indian,native American,20% all non violent,first timers. all this for a lie at court on amounts,and starting over again. my customers, people like you here. no one knew the other,and all above 35 with familys and jobs. no one went down except me and the wife.the cost, go figure, but hey, thanks for the hernia repair,and my appendix exploded while in.. even the judge was vocally against this sentence,and made such a remark to the court. it was not my living,i actully had a repair/welding buisness,and it all fell apart. if any,politician sees a dime from private prisons,for his vote to secure them, i would question his/hers moral integrity,sans the BS about any excuse for thier decision,never elect them,and have them,spend a month in a private facility,enjoying less than what i got from the federal system. im sure i would have died the day my appendix broke.

  18. Jack, thanks for the reveal. First hand experience is the stuff that us philosophers need to be real.

    As a society we became so afraid of poverty and the consequences of people having to be creative just to survive with dignity that the best solution we could see was hiding it. What better place than prison.

    Sorry you got caught up in our uninformed thrashing around.

  19. Ms. Kennedy et al

    “The idea that there would be profit to be made through the imprisonment of our neighbors is something that’s abhorrent to a number of people…”

    I think we should rethink all of capitalism in the same way e.g. “The idea that there is a profit to be made through providing health care to our neighbors (and so forth)

  20. Jack; the musician son of a friend was living in Oregon, he was growing a few marijuana plants in his back yard. Authorities showed up; laid out heavy canvas tarps, pulled up his dozen or so plants by roots, dirt and all and wrapped them in the tarps. That is how they were weighed and he was charged with possession/intent to sell for weight of tarps, roots and dirt. You and he were obviously easy targets; arresting actual cartel members is dangerous work…and authorities actually have to work to find and arrest them.

  21. You should probably have pointed out that CoreCivic is Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) which has been rebranded. (I had to look it up.) As an attorney, I had many dealings with CCA and sued the company several times. CCA ran Marion County Jail #2. I tried so hard to publicly expose what was going on in Jail #2. I particularly tried to alert the Indianapolis City-County Council giving them a list of outrageous things we found out about how CCA was running Jail #2. Sheriff Frank Anderson though was, for some odd reason, very protective of CCA and, perhaps because of that, some of the top Council Democrats didn’t want to do anything. I actually got more interest from Republicans council members. Anderson’s successor’s weren’t so enamored with CCA (sorry I have to keep calling the company that). So glad to hear the City’s relationship with CCA is ending. You are totally right about the perverse incentives associates with private prisons/jails. But it is even worse when you have zero supervision of those private prisons/jails by elected officials which, sadly, was the case during Sheriff Anderson’s tenure.

  22. Hmmm, I can’t go where Andy did with health care. I don’t see it as the same at all. Whereas, you might sometimes get the feeling that some tests are unnecessary – the incentives aren’t the same at all. I’ve never had the impression that a health care professional was “selling misery” or was prolonging my illness for profit, for example.

    Although I don’t agree with long sentences – particularly for first time and minor drug offences… some of these folks here aren’t talking about getting busted for a joint, they are talking about growing operations.

    I believe that clogging up our justice system with the mentally ill is not humane and doesn’t help anyone. We’ve never actually dealt with the deinstitutionalized chronically mentally ill… and they are in our jails and sleeping on the sidewalk. I’d be a lot more inclined to putting energy and resources into diverting the mentally ill out of our justice system.

    And while I won’t go so far as Sen Tom Cotton did when he said that we had an “Under incarceration problem” – He made a point when he noted that for the vast majority of crimes a perpetrator is never identified, let alone arrested or incarcerated. I have several friends who are plagued with a criminal element in their neighborhood – and many of the perpetrators are well known to the justice system.

    Criminal justice reform is a laudable goal and certainly jails should not be privatized. We have way too many people incarcerated. However, at the root of the mass incarceration problem is the fact that we have a crime problem in the US – and the left isn’t really talking much about that.

  23. I saw this conflict first hand 15 years ago when the Old Northside neighborhood was home to the “Riverside Correctional Facility”. A private company bought an old hotel to house 125 non-violent work release prisoners. It very quickly turned into 200 or even 300 people in a building designed to hold half that number. The city was reluctant to enforce even the most basic zoning ordinances against a company they were doing business with. The business was doing great because every body meant more money.

    Nighttime drug dealing (lowering buckets out the windows) became rampant. Petty crime and prostitution became a problem. It took almost 3 years of complaints, details of police runs and finally getting the fire safety officials involved and even then it still operated for a period of time.

    Private jails provide a perverse incentive to make sure they house more and more prisoners.

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