Should We Do Away With Private Prisons?

Should We Do Away With Private Prisons?

A major reason for the US having more people in prison than any other nation, according to a statement by Sen. Bernie Sanders, is that companies that operate private prisons spend millions of dollars lobbying Congress for laws that "needlessly keep people behind bars for far too long."

Sanders, who is running for the office of President as a Democrat, says it is shameful that the United States is home to 4.4 percent of the world's population and 22 percent of its prison inmates.

"This situation has gotten so out of hand that our prisoners are no longer people — they have simply become sources of profit as laborers who work for pennies an hour on behalf of major corporations," Sanders said. "Keeping human beings in jail for long periods of time must no longer be an acceptable business model. Our focus should be on treating people with dignity and ensuring they have the resources they need to get back on their feet when they get out."

Sanders recently introduced legislation that would put an end to for-profit prisons by banning federal, state and local governments from contracting with private companies that manage prisons, jails or detention facilities. The legislation also would require Immigration and Customs Enforcement to improve their monitoring of detention facilities and eliminate private detention centers within two years.

"This will not be easy," Sanders said, noting that private for-profit prisons are a $70 billion industry with so much money at stake that "it's not surprising they've corrupted our political process. The industry has contributed millions of dollars to candidates in pursuit of laws that increase incarceration of non-violent offenders — a practice that disproportionately impacts people of color in the United States. We must stop the practice of  governments guaranteeing prison occupancy as part of deals with private corporations that (provide incentives for) states to keep prison cells filled. It is time to end this morally repugnant process and, along with it, the era of mass incarceration."

 Sanders' legislation also takes steps to reduce the bloated inmate population by reinstating the federal parole system so that officials can individually assess each prisoner's risk and chance for rehabilitation. It ends the immigrant detention quota, which requires officials to hold a minimum of 34,000 people captive at any given time. And it would end the detention of immigrant families, many of whom are currently held in privately-owned facilities in Texas and Pennsylvania.

"If we act," he says, "not only can we prevent thousands of lives from being destroyed, we can save billions of taxpayer dollars."

If you think the argument about private prisons is a lot of nonsense, then you should know about the two judges in Pennsylvania who reportedly sentenced thousands of kids to privately-run youth detention centers or for treatment over a period of four years and, according to prosecutors, took $2.6 million in payoffs from the centers run by PA Child Care LLC and a sister company, Western PA Child Care LLC.

The two Luzerne County judges, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, were prosecuted and sentenced to 28 years and 17 1/2 years in prison respectively. The owner of both detention centers, Bob Powell, was prosecuted and sentenced to 18 months in prison while Robert Mericle, who built the centers and was allegedly involved in the payoffs, was sentenced to one year in prison.

"I've never encountered a case where literally thousands of kids' lives were just tossed aside in order for a couple of judges to make some money," said Marsha Levick, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which represented hundreds of youths sentenced by the judges in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

According to prosecutors, Judge Conahan shut down the county-run juvenile prison in 2002 and helped the two companies secure rich contracts worth tens of millions of dollars, some of which depended on how many juveniles were locked up. One of the contracts, a 20-year agreement with PA Child Care worth an estimated $58 million, was later canceled by Luzerne County as exorbitant.

What were the charges against the children that required them to be sentenced to the youth detention centers? Some of the teenagers were locked up for stealing loose change from cars, writing a prank note and possessing drug paraphernalia. Many had never been in trouble before and some were imprisoned even after probation officers recommended against it. And many appeared without lawyers, despite the US Supreme Court's landmark ruling in 1967 that children have a constitutional right to counsel.

A class action suit filed later against Powell and Mericle on behalf of the children reportedly resulted in a multi-million dollar settlement.