According to the Oregon Department of Prisons website our state first experimented with private prisons in the late 1800s. The state penitentiary “was leased to a private company… Since this concept was becoming very popular nationwide, Oregon’s legislature approved the experiment.” It did not last long. “In one day every inmate at the penitentiary escaped. Most walked out the front gate.”
This amusing historical nugget is a reminder that some ideas never quite go away – in this case the idea that private companies are always more efficient and that their need to make a profit will not result in either sloppy work or abuses (the 19th century version of private prisons made their money mainly by hiring the prisoners out as labor). Today, private prisons are illegal in Oregon, and our state is one of 11 that do not use the private system at all, according to a 2012 report by The Sentencing Project. An announcement by the Obama administration last month that the Federal government will phase out its use of private prisons is also likely to put a dent in the industry.
As a recent article in The New Yorker outlines, however, beyond the full-scale privatization of prisons the growth of all prisons over the last generation along with America’s collective assumption that private services are always superior to public services has led to some shocking arrangements in both government and private-run prisons. These often deny basic civil rights to prisoners with the goal of making money for the government. For example, the magazine notes, “short phone calls from prison can cost up to fifteen dollars, largely because the companies operate as monopolies within prison walls. The private companies also offer state and local authorities a percentage of their revenue, which contributes to the cost of the calls and creates other perverse incentives. Some jails, for instance, have removed in-person family-visitation rooms to make way for ‘video visitation’ terminals, provided by private firms, which can charge as much as thirty dollars for forty minutes of screen time.”
It is particularly distressing to learn that many prisons have outsourced their healthcare obligations to private companies. As The New Yorker writes, the country’s largest prison health company is responsible for the care of over 300,000 inmates and earned $1.4 billion in revenue last year despite being “named as a defendant in at least six hundred and sixty malpractice lawsuits over the past five years.” In one instance the company paid over $8 million to settle claims from the family of an inmate who died of medical neglect. The article quotes the ACLU putting matters succinctly: “How does this for-profit prison healthcare company keep its costs low and its profits high? By failing to provide sick prisoners with needed care.”
It is easy to dismiss stories like this since inmates are hardly a sympathetic population, but that is precisely why more attention needs to be paid and action needs to be taken. The US constitution’s bar on cruel and unusual punishment never envisioned a world in which governments helped rich companies get richer by ripping off poor prisoners and denying them basic human and civil rights. As the lawsuits surrounding prison healthcare prove, even the argument that outsourcing much of a prison’s operations saves money is flawed. It creates unhealthy incentives for both the contractors and for state and local government and, in so doing, exposes government to legal liability because regardless of who it hires the government has ultimate responsibility for the well-being of prisoners in its care. As a Portland civil rights attorney I am always concerned when I see rights being violated, even the rights of people already behind bars. When we allow injustices like this to happen our entire society suffers both morally and, ultimately, financially.
The New Yorker: Making profits on the captive prison market
Oregon.gov: Private Prison History
New York Times: US to phase out use of private prisons for Federal inmates