New attacks on prison privatization use religion, slavery

Feb 10, 2012

There are a couple of new twists in the ongoing batter over prison privatization. As Sascha Cordner reports, opposing sides are using religion and slavery as the basis for their argument.

Supporters of an effort to privatize about 30 South Florida prisons usually argue that private companies will do the same job as a state-run prison and will save the state millions of dollars. Meanwhile, opponents say there is no set cost-savings, private companies select inmates that don’t cost as much, and it will cost thousands of correctional officers their jobs.

But, there are some arguments out there that may not have been heard, including a few from the faith community.

“I think the Methodist Church has come out quite strongly to make that moral argument. They divested in all private prison companies, along with not investing in incarcerating other human beings, they also don’t invest in alcohol and gambling and a number of things they also oppose.  They’re well positioned to take that sort of moral stance because they’ve classically worked in prisons to try to assist people.”

Julie Ebenstein with the ACLU of Florida is referring to how the United Methodist Church recently sold its private prison stock, which included GEO group and Corrections Corporation of America. She says it’s because some faith communities believe privatizing prisons is wrong.

But, not all religious groups that do prison work feel that way.  The head of a group that represents South Florida jail clergy says privatizing prisons could be the best thing for South Florida:

“This is an opportunity for our state to reform the Department of Corrections, and this is a great opportunity for us to show the difference between the Southern region, Region IV, versus the other state-run facilities. We’re faith-based non-profit organizations and we can work very well with the private industry.

Claudio Perez is the President and CEO of South Florida Jail Ministries, a program that brings together 15 chaplains from every faith and denomination to minister and volunteer in South Florida jails. Perez says it’s his organization’s belief that the state is not doing enough for the faith-and character-based programs, and a private company can do it better.

It’s a shame to see what is happening with the inmates as they’re being released without any type of training and substance abuse, mental health, or having any programs that they’re desperately in need of, plus connecting them back to a community that supports them. That’s been lacking and it has been lacking for years and years. So, this is an opportunity to actually re-focus our efforts and have a private entity be focused on these outcomes.”

But, some National Criminal justice experts don’t agree. David Shapiro is a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project in Washington, D-C. He recently wrote a national report on private prisons that showed that private prisons are for-profit. Shapiro says the private prison management companies, like CCA and GEO, are in the business of incarceration and don’t care about the inmates:

Ensuring decent conditions and human rights in prisons isn’t about turning prisons into Hilton hotels. It’s about ensuring fair and decent treatment so that people can be rehabilitated while in prison, can be re-integrated into society when they’re being released, rather than being driven to commit more crimes.”

He says the history of privatized prisons is repeating itself. In the past, for example, one major experiment with for-profit prisons in America was called the convict-lease system:

After the Civil War, Slavery was abolished but many prisoners, especially African Americans were sent to prison, arbitrarily, where they were leased out to private contractors who had very little incentive to keep them alive, and indeed they died in droves. Today’s private prisons may be more sanitized, and they may not look like the convict lease system, But, what remains unchanged or similar, is the incentive structure.”

As the prison privatization debate continues, Senate President Mike Haridopolos says Senators are expected to take up the prison privatization bill, Senate Bill 2038, Monday and Tuesday.