What We Talk About When We Talk About Private Prisons
As I noted in an earlier post, the Hawaii Legislature and Governor Linda Lingle are mired in battle over whether the state should send auditors to the private prison in Arizona where Hawaii sends most of its inmates. In this op-ed, Kat Brady tallies at least five inmate deaths at the Saguaro prison in the past two years and accuses the Corrections Corporation of America of falsifying internal audit reports to downplay troubling incidents. Like any good corporate spokesperson, CCA operations VP Ron Thompson took to the op-ed page to defend his employer against such claims. From the Honolulu Star-Advertiser:
For more than a decade, CCA has partnered with Hawaii to relieve prison overcrowding. In doing so, CCA has provided cost-effective prison space and services that include meaningful rehabilitation programs to help inmates stay out of prison once released. … To ensure that we are accountable, Hawaii’s contract with CCA sets requirements for services and performance. One requirement is accreditation by the American Correctional Association – the nation’s highest standard of professional correctional services. This means that in addition to oversight from Hawaii officials – who have full access to our prisons – we are also audited and inspected by an independent team of professional experts.
Now, I’m sure there are holes to be poked in Thompson’s argument, but I’m less interested in vilifying CCA, and more interested in interrogating the rhetorical limits of the current debate on private prisons. The argument between these two op-eds takes place in fairly practical, dollars-and-cents terms. Brady and Thompson are debating whether CCA prisons are adequately staffed, whether they offer enough rehabilitative programming, whether they’re transparent, whether they’re subject to sufficient state oversight, whether they’re cost-effective for states. If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” then that’s certainly a problem, but it’s a problem that could theoretically be fixed through various regulatory or legislative mechanisms without necessarily scrapping the concept of private prisons altogether. States could mandate higher staffing ratios for private prisons, require more programming, appoint an independent auditor, etc.
Neither side is really engaging the much deeper set of questions raised by private prisons about the legitimacy of the carceral state and the anti-democratic implications of privatizing incarceration. As Sarah Armstrong has written, “Private prisons are evaluated not according to whether they are good or bad, but whether they are cheap, safe, and legal” (PDF p. 277). Let’s take a closer look at the CCA’s own rhetoric. In Thompson’s mildly Orwellian language, CCA is just a “partner” to the State of Hawaii. (See also the CCA’s Q&A about “partnership corrections,” a PDF file tellingly labeled “Brand Message.”) Sounds innocuous enough. But wait a minute: Why should quasi-sovereign states be “partnering” with for-profit corporations to build and maintain cages for their citizens? It’s one thing for states to contract out to private companies to provide specific goods and services but the word “partner” goes beyond that — it implies a relationship of equals. No one elects CCA officials to be the equals of government officials, yet now they have all this de facto power for setting and implementing criminal justice policy. Obviously state law provides parameters, but prison officials necessarily have a lot of day-to-day discretion and to the extent that discretion is being carried out by employees of a for-profit corporation rather than government employees who are ultimately accountable to someone, that may be troubling. If so, that’s a problem that can’t be fixed simply through increased regulation or oversight or better funding of private prisons. It can only be fixed by fundamentally re-thinking privatization.
In the case of Hawaii, both of these levels of questions become especially salient. For our 50th state, outsourcing to CCA necessarily means sending prisoners literally thousands of miles away from their home, to prisons where their families can’t easily visit, state auditors can’t easily visit, legislators can’t easily visit, Hawaii lawyers can’t easily visit, etc., etc. Basically, there’s no way for anyone who cares about Hawaiian prisoners to keep regular tabs on what’s actually going on in the prisons where they’re kept, unless they feel like moving to Arizona. In Hawaii, it seems, a prison sentence is really a temporary exile. Now, maybe that’s the policy that Hawaii voters and legislators want, but if so then it seems that they should clearly and explicitly establish this policy by law, not de facto through a contract with a private corporation. As Newsweek reported this week, the leading private prison companies are also generous political donors in states (like California) where they are courting new business. But that’s neither surprising nor avoidable — all corporations seek to protect their interests. That’s precisely why I think it’s worth debating whether we should allow corporations to have such strong interests in the prison industry at all.