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America’s Prisons are a National Disgrace

This week at the Guardian (and in the national news media) there’s been much attention paid to the role of private contractors in our intelligence and military operations, after an NSA employee leaked classified documents about U.S. spying to Glenn Greenwald. I’m using my column this week to talk about a different kind of privatization in American security: The privatization of our prison system, which turns the building and management of prisons over to corporate entities. Of course, even non-privatized prisons in the U.S. are rife with abuses. But privatization creates strong financial incentives for increased incarceration; the actors who are incentivized are particularly powerful, politically connected and monied. There’s also little oversight and regulation of private prisons, as attempts to do so are met with significant push-back. A part of the column (content warning: the text below and particularly the linked column include descriptions of violent prison abuses):

EMCF houses severely mentally ill prisoners, with the supposed intent of providing both incarceration and treatment. Instead, the ACLU contends, the facility, which is operated by private contractors, is rife with horrific abuses. As the ACLU states, it is

“an extremely dangerous facility operating in a perpetual state of crisis, where prisoners live in barbaric and horrific conditions and their basic human rights are violated daily.”

The complaint lists a litany of such horrors, but here are a few highlights: rampant rapes. Placing prisoners in solitary confinement for weeks, months or even years at a time, where the only way to get a guard’s attention in an emergency is to set a fire. Rat infestations so bad that vermin crawl over prisoners; sometimes, the rats are captured, put on leashes and sold as pets to the most severely mentally ill inmates. Many suicide attempts, some successful. The untreated mentally ill throw feces, scream, start fires, electrocute themselves and self-mutilate. Denying or delaying treatment for infections and even cancer. Stabbings, beatings and other acts of violence. Juveniles being housed with adults, including one 16-year-old who was sexually assaulted by his adult cell mate. Malnourishment and chronic hunger. Officers who deal with prisoners by using physical violence.

These kinds of abuses are not relegated to a single prison, but they also aren’t inherent in any detention system. In the United States, though, they’re business as usual. Our prison system is increasingly built and run by for-profit corporations, who have a financial interest in increasing the number of people in prison while decreasing the amount of money it costs to house them.

Since 1980, the US prison population has grown by 790%. We have the largest prison population of any nation in the history of the world. One in three African-American men will go to jail at some point in his life. Imprisoning that many people, most of them for non-violent offenses, doesn’t come cheap, especially when you’re paying private contractors. The United States now spends $50bn on our corrections system every year.

Much of that money goes to private contractors, who are doing quite well living off of American corporate welfare – at the expense of the American taxpayer, whose dollars are funding this mass incarceration project. Large-scale imprisonment isn’t making us any safer, either. But it is putting small-time non-violent individuals – drug users and dealers – in close contact with more hardened criminals and making it significantly more difficult for them to find decent work after their release. That’s a perfect recipe for recidivism, not rehabilitation.

Prisons, as demonstrated by the ACLU case, have also become de facto mass institutions for the mentally ill, except without the oversight that pure psychiatric facilities face. With states tightening their budgets, mental health care is being cut even further. While the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of crimes than victimizers, they are imprisoned at disproportionate rates, and often lack meaningful mental healthcare in prison and even face conditions that exacerbate their diseases, like solitary confinement and total squalor. We’re effectively taking some of the most vulnerable members of society and subjecting them to ongoing torture.

We have so demonized criminals in the United States that there’s widespread acceptance of the fact that jail in modern day America means rapes, beatings, vermin, filth and abuse. But to what end? “Criminals” are punished, yes – brutally, and in ways that should repel and shame us. But rehabilitation isn’t happening in these facilities. Crime isn’t being deterred; if anything, it’s being fostered.

The American public is losing out. The only winners are the private companies who are still awarded contracts to build and maintain more prisons, and who throw their weight behind politicians who promote the supposedly “tough on crime” measures that ensure those prisons are full.

26 thoughts on America’s Prisons are a National Disgrace

  1. Never understood why we have prisons at all. If the goal is to punish inmates, surely torture would be both cheaper and have a lower recidivism rate (burn a rapist’s eyes out and cut off his pizzle and he’s unlikely to ever assault another person) If we’re trying to rehabilitate people, surely a residency treatment program and job training/placement would be more efficient. Our current system, born of historical circumstances and practically irreeformable, pleased no one except the private companies running the facilities.

    1. If the goal is to punish inmates, surely torture would be both cheaper and have a lower recidivism rate (burn a rapist’s eyes out and cut off his pizzle and he’s unlikely to ever assault another person)

      Surely you’re not seriously suggesting this, are you?

    2. Prison is used over non-permanent torture because the latter doesn’t remove people from society – people usually don’t change their mind in a day, so even if you horribly torture them there’s a good chance be back at it once you’re done.

      “(burn a rapist’s eyes out and cut off his pizzle and he’s unlikely to ever assault another person)”

      No can do. People would sooner hang the rapist than do something like that. It’s just too… uncivilised. Whether that’s actually ideal or not is up for debate, but there’s no way around it.

      (Besides, I don’t think you could go to the UN with all their anti-FGM campaigns and say “I support using it en masse as a deterrent”)

      1. “(burn a rapist’s eyes out and cut off his pizzle and he’s unlikely to ever assault another person)”

        No can do. People would sooner hang the rapist than do something like that. It’s just too… uncivilised. Whether that’s actually ideal or not is up for debate, but there’s no way around it.

        Maybe I’m misunderstanding you, but are you saying that whether it’s idea to burn a rapist’s eyes out and cut off his penis is up for debate? Because that’s not up for debate.

        (If for some reason this needs further clarification, no, it is NOT ideal to burn peoples’ eyes out or sever parts of their bodies as punishment, no matter how awful their crimes).

      1. No kidding. I’ll be trying to shake that awful visual for the rest of the day. 🙁

        I can understand allowing this conversation/debate to happen, but can the mods edit out the gratuitous examples of violence and label them as such in a generic (read: non-triggering) manner?

        1. I think the point is that we already accept that inmates will be tortured by guards and other prisoners, so if we are okay with that then why not just cut out the middleman and have the state torture them?

          Obviously, a better solution would be to not have a prison system which encourages human rights abuses in the first place.

  2. A long, sad history. We have come full circle in one hundred and fifty years, since Dorothea Dix first pushed for asylums and humane treatment of people with mental illness.

    In the years before the American Civil War, Dix delivered this address to the Massachusetts state legislature:

    I proceed, gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of insane persons confined within this Commonwealth, in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience.

    As I state cold, severe facts, I feel obliged to refer to persons, and definitely to indicate localities. But it is upon my subject, not upon localities or individuals, I desire to fix attention; and I would speak as kindly as possible of all wardens, keepers, and other responsible officers, believing that most of these have erred not through hardness of heart and wilful cruelty so much as want of skill and knowledge, and want of consideration. Familiarity with suffering, it is said, blunts the sensibilities, and where neglect once finds a footing other injuries are multiplied. This is not all, for it may justly and strongly be added that, from the deficiency of adequate means to meet the wants of these cases, it has been an absolute impossibility to do justice in this matter. Prisons are not constructed in view of being converted into county hospitals, and almshouses are not founded as receptacles for the insane. And yet, in the face of justice and common sense, wardens are by law compelled to receive, and the masters of almshouses not to refuse, insane and idiotic subjects in all stages of mental disease and privation.

    In the intervening years, in the US, in the UK, and in Europe, various theories of moral and humane care and even medical treatment were put forth (moral hygiene, for instance). Asylums were built, often grand Victorian buildings on sweeping grounds, where inmate-patients, as part of their treatment, would work the fields. Particularly in the US and UK, there was a strong evangelical protestant flavor to the asylum movement, which was not yet fully medicalized (back in the days before psychiatry).

    In the twentieth century, asylums became more medical. When Zelda Fitzgerald burned to death in 1948 while awaiting electroshock therapy, medical men, and not religious men, more or less influenced by Freud, Jung, and other psychoanalysts, dominated psychiatric care. Depending on how much money someone had – or how much money their families had – people with mental illness might receive treatment at resort-like sanitoriums or at delapidated warehouses.

    And yet, for all the distance between The Bell Jar and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a constant remained: coercion. As the moral flavor of treatment left, as the crusading spirit of Dorothea Dix ossified into institutional, medical care and the long-term warehousing of mentally ill and mentally disabled people, never once were people with mental illness consulted about their own care. And so, as in all institutions with such enormous imbalances of power, abuse became rampant.

    Deinstitutionalization, the process by which hundreds of long-term state psychiatric hospitals closed their doors in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, actually had its beginnings in the 1940s. The first people to blow the whistle on the kinds of abuse taking place in psychiatric hospitals were actually WWII-era conscientious objectors.

    In theory, deinstitutionalization was supposed to be a good thing. People with mental illnesses would no longer be locked up indefinitely without any sort of hearing. People with mental illness would be given tools to help them adjust back to living in the community. Huge state hospitals would be phased out, and community mental health centers would replace them, involving everything from supervised group homes to supportive housing to outpatient care managed by specialized social workers.

    Yet the progressives and civil libertarians who worked for deinstitutionalization had as their main allies in government not other progressives, but fiscal conservatives like Ronald Reagan eager to trim the budget and save dollars. Both as a governor of California and as president, Reagan presided over the destruction of America’s mental health system. That this coincided with the return of hundreds of thousands of Vietnam Vets, many of whom had PTSD, is a great tragedy.

    And yet deinstitutionalization, for all its evils, was made possible by tremendous medical advances that have moved psychiatry from the realm of superstition and hocus-pocus into the world of evidence-based treatment. Starting in the 1940s, each decade brought radical new medical, rather than surgical, treatments. Lithium, Thorazine, Benzodiazepines, Tricyclic Antidepressants, Anti-Convulsants, SSRIs, Atypical Antipsychotics, and more. None of these drugs are benign. All carry serious risks: debilitating side-effects, addiction issues (with some anti-anxiety drugs), and even permanent disability or death. And yet these drugs have saved lives: saved lives from constant internal torture, from madness; saved lives from self injury and suicide.

    My stake in this is personal. I live with a chronic mental illness, bipolar disorder. I know many people with other mental illnesses. I am without a doubt better off in 2013 than at any other time in the history of psychiatric treatment. And yet that I am doing so well is a testament not to the US psychiatric system but to immense privilege. I am white. I am middle class. I am female – here, undoubtedly a privilege and a curse; to be a crazy woman puts me at greater risk of sexual violence but also – in my perception – insulates me from some of the worst violence committed by medical providers and police against people with mental illness.

    The solution to the abuse of the mentally ill in American prisons is not to bring back the old, bad system of long-term warehousing. Of a certainty, we need more state psychiatric hospitals. I have been in the hospital for psych issues four times. Each time, I wanted to get out as quickly as possible, and hated every minute of it. And three of those four times, I was discharged from the hospital far, far too soon. I could write a short book on the problems of power and consent on locked wards, but I will save that as it is not germane.

    My point is, what we really need in the US is medium-term hospitalizations, where a person is in the hospital for months, rather than days (what we have now) or years (what we had decades ago). We also need more partial hospitalization programs. We need more and better community mental health programs – programs where the waiting list to see a psychiatrist is two weeks, not two years. We need more drop-in mental health centers (there’s one in the county in California where I live. They operate one day a week, for six hours, to serve a potential client population in the tens of thousands.) We need police, ER doctors, family health practitioners, lawyers, and judges to get really good education on what mental illness is and what it isn’t.

    There’s more I can say about mad folks and the anti-psychiatry movement, about chemical restraints, about the use of force, about whether people with mental illness are more likely to be victims than victimized. This isn’t my blog, so I’ll save it for now.

  3. One of my ongoing brooding resentments is that no-one really wants to be a staff member/guard–the level of abuse and horror you see is so high that emotional and/or physical burnout in inevitable. The few who stay have to stop caring in some form.

    1. The prison system in general is a disgrace, and all the things listed happen in non-privatized prisons as well.

      A lot of it even goes on in non-criminal psychiatric facilities and group homes as well.

      We need better regulation of everywhere where people are held against their will.

      1. Yes, I saw that Josh Barro asked what seems like a fair question (maybe with specific reference to Jill’s article): why the particular liberal horror for private prisons? America’s prisons are an archipelago of misery regardless of who’s running them; the problem is that our political elites have made a choice in favor of mass incarceration, particular of people of color. (And yes, I do understand that privatized prisons are important in political economy terms because they create a reasonably well-financed lobby for higher sentences. But I would say prison guard unions are just as important in the political economy of mass incarceration, and yet they don’t seem to come in for much criticism on the left.)

        1. I’ve written about the general prison system many times before; this column was about privatization because (1) privatization of security is in the news because of the NSA story, and (2)the prison in the ACLU suit was run by a private company, and many of the problems came out of the lack of oversight that such private facilities often suffer from.

          And while it is true that political elites have made a choice in favor of mass incarceration, the intense profit motive of private companies plays an enormous role. Companies that run private prisons are a powerful and monied lobby — more powerful and certainly wealthier than the prison guard lobby. These are companies that make several billion dollars a year, much coming from federal and state governments. The for-profit prison industry makes more money the more people go to jail and the more prisons are built. The prison guard lobby doesn’t have that same set of incentives — they may want more tax dollars for pensions and they realize that more inmates means more guards means more money/influence, but don’t have corporate executives who need to see a generalized increase in incarceration in order to increase profits, which is the way “successful” businesses are run.

          I mean, why do you think that political elits have chosen mass incarceration?

        2. I’m not so sure that private prison operators spend more on lobbying than prison guard unions. The big three private prison operators in the U.S. run about 145 facilities. That’s a lot in absolute terms, but a very small fraction of the 4000+ jails and prisons in the country. Many (most?) of the non-private facilities are staffed by unionized prison guards; even in “right to work” states, there are often exceptions in law for state and local employees in “public safety” professions. So again… not sure. Your point about prison-guard unions having a somewhat more diverse portfolio of lobbying interests is well-taken, but I would be fascinated to see some actual numbers on the amount spent lobbying by these two factions.

          I mean, why do you think that political elits have chosen mass incarceration?

          The usual suspects: racism, the political utility of appearing “tough on crime” in comparison to the unpopularity of explaining that criminals are human beings too, and a media-driven fiction that we’re in the middle of a swelling epidemic of violent crime. Another political-economy aspect is pure localism: particularly in state legislatures, rural legislators need to bring in state jobs for their home districts, and prisons are a politically convenient way to do that.

        3. Kind of replying to a lot of different people/ideas here, but:

          Saying prison guard unions want more prisoners is like saying a nurse wants more patients. She gets paid the same to do more work.

          People will always commit crimes; people will always be sick. The field is secure. What guards and unions is *fewer* prisoners, or at least a smaller prisoner-to-guard ratio, higher pay, and more support. Prison guards and their unions hate the mentally ill, they’re money pits and a nightmare to deal with. They want *less* work and more money because they are dangerously overworked, undertrained, and IMO, underpaid for the duties they are expected to perform. And they know it and hate it.

        4. Saying prison guard unions want more prisoners is like saying a nurse wants more patients. She gets paid the same to do more work.

          People will always commit crimes; people will always be sick. The field is secure.

          To the extent that medical providers advocate for more clients, that generally involves an expansion of medical care or access. (That is, they aren’t lobbying for randomly-selected people to be infected with pneumonia in order to get them in the doors of the hospital.) That seems pretty benign. When prison guards advocate for more inmates, they are advocating for more misery.

          And I don’t agree that there’s no interest, or that “the field is secure.” Unions want to protect their current members. If sentences are reduced, both “flow” and “stock” of inmates will be reduced, prisons may be closed, and guards will be laid off. And we absolutely do see prison-guard unions advocating for “tougher” sentences in places like California, where prison overcrowding is already at dangerous levels.

          I accept that prison guards also want “more support.” But sometimes that support comes in very harmful forms. For example, I have heard from state correctional administrators that guard unions are leading foes of efforts to reform long-term solitary confinement. I do understand the impulse, in that some inmates in solitary confinement represent serious threats to the COs who have to interact with them on a daily basis, and locking those inmates in a concrete box and throwing away the key reduces the threat. But prolonged solitary confinement is torture, and I am instinctively suspicious of interest groups with a lobbying interest in torture.

  4. I think that over the centuries we have grown more empathetic. To wit, we no longer disembowel people or burn them at the stake. But I also concede that we often take punitive measures more easily, or as a kind of corrective to strategies that appear lax or don’t seem to be working.

    Poverty and all of its byproducts cannot be legislated away. It takes a collective effort, one most people are unwilling to undertake individually. We outsource that role quite eagerly. My father was a prison warden for a few years, and quit because my mother was afraid of having to live near a prison.

  5. Sadly the idea of revenge is too deeply ingrained in the american psyche when it comes to dealing out justice. Facilities where inmates get out worse than they came in not only are tolerated, many feel thats the way a prison should be.

  6. The private prisons issue is, pardon my cliche, a perfect political storm. You have large corporations (with CCA being the largest and most noted), public sector union corrections officers, and a highly unpopular group of people impacted–namely incarcerated persons.

    So you tell me, if you have highly organized lobbies from both the corporate world and from labor who can both agree that it’s good for their profits/job security to have people incarcerated, how do you overcome that political alliance to reform the system?

    What legislator is going to pick up prison reform as his/her cause celebre? You open yourself up to the attack that you’re “soft on crime” or “coddling murderers, rapists and child molesters.” Lather, rinse, repeat.

    And not to mention the people who you’d be trying to help can’t vote when they’re incarcerated, and in many cases will be disfranchised by operation of law for the remainder of their lives.

    The lift to fix this problem is *insanely* heavy. It’s going to take a series of scandals from inside prisons that get reported in such a way that people are genuinely shocked for the public to begin to comprehend the scope of the problem. And because we generally believe “those people are getting the punishment they deserve” and frequently make rape jokes about jails, it’s probably going to need to be a scandal about the money rather than the abuse.

    The money is always what you want to follow.

    But your article is part of the start, so thanks for that.

    1. One legislator was willing, I was so proud of my previous Senator for trying to fix this, but Jill’s point is the reason he made no headway. U.S. Sen. Jim Webb’s proposal to form a commission to recommend widespread reforms to the criminal justice system was defeated over and over and over again. And all he was trying to do is form a study commission, it’s sad the power the prison lobby has. He was an honest politician looking to actually serve, there aren’t enough in our legislature willing to do that. He decided not to run again.

      1. The pressure can only come from the population. Many citizens see prisons as a place where the inmate is to suffer for whatever he has done and scoff at prisons like the ones you find in Sweden or Germany.

        Of course that mindset manifested itself in the American psyche when most inmates did time for stealing a horse, robbing a bank murder etc. . Today probably more than half of the inmates do time for selling drugs to people whom wanted them in the first place.

        1. The American system is ineffective too, as can be seen with the very high re offending rates, whereas Sweden has the lowest re offending rates in Europe. The American system is primarily geared not towards solving a problem, but towards satisfying a desire or urge for revenge.

          Admittably there might be other factors involved, such as the accessibility of the American and Swedish Job market.

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