Thursday, March 15, 2012

Opposing mass incarceration means opposing private prison growth opportunities

Several headlines about the private-prison industry caught Grits' eye and merit readers' attention. First, apparently most states, including Texas, are rejecting Correction Corporation of America's offer (see Grits' discussion) to purchase state-owned prisons if the states would guarantee 90% occupancy for 20 years. Let's hope that trend continues.

The blog Texas Prison Bidness points out that previous, similar deals between states and the company (ticker symbol: CXW) haven't panned out so well, quoting an ACLU-Ohio's assessment that, “While CCA claims it will save Ohioans $3 million per year, a recent report analyzing the state's contract shows that taxpayers will actually lose money over the next 20 years.  Of course, this is not earth-shattering news, as other fiscal analyses in Ohio and Arizona have produced similar results.”

On the flip side, a new immigration detention center in Karnes County, TX supposedly is a kinder and gentler version of involuntary detention for economic immigrants and other low-risk detainees awaiting deportation. The facility is the first of what may be a new market for private prison companies in "softer" incarceration  venues, though holding people against their will would remain at the heart of their business model. The changes come in response to complaints from advocates, and to a large extent outside this facility, those complaints still hold. “[L]ast fall, a report put out by an international human rights organization suggested that in spite of promises to make detention centers more liveable, 'the overwhelming majority of detainees are still held in jails or jail-like facilities.'”

For Grits' part, my primary concern with immigration detention doesn't just stem from treating civil detainees, including blameless children, like criminals, though that's a serious problem. My beef stems from the fact of their long-term incarceration in the first place, even if most of it is supposedly the equivalent of pretrial detention before their case is heard before backlogged federal judges. Grits believes that, at this historical juncture, it's time to scale back mass-incarceration in all its forms, and immigration detention has been the primary growth sector for new incarceration in the 21st Century, particularly under the Obama Administration, even as crime has declined and criminal incarceration rates have peaked and begun to drop.

To me, large-scale immigration detention is yet another example of using the mechanisms of the criminal justice system to confront social problems that are more readily resolved by other means. While recognizing that some incarceration is necessary and socially beneficial, IMO the United States - and Texas, even more so - have long past the point where the marginal costs of increased incarceration exceed the marginal benefit, and today we're throwing good money after bad, in part in deference to the influential private prison lobby.

Really, though, the debate shouldn't be over whether state-run beds are superior to private ones, but whether current incarceration levels are justified at all. The industry is a parasite, but it's also an expression in many ways of misguided public sentiment favoring mass incarceration that IMO is slowly but steadily eroding . Grover Norquist famously said he hoped to shrink the federal government until it was small enough to drown in a bath tub. Grits harbors similar, perhaps fantastic hopes for one day shrinking the overall market for private-prison beds.

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