The Denver Post
As Colorado's prison population declines, we need to ask ourselves if we want our state to continue sending taxpayer dollars to corporations that profit from the incarceration of human beings. Today, Coloradans spend $52 per inmate per day on for-profit prison corporations that are accountable primarily to their shareholders, not taxpayers.
As the state's inmate population declines, the state must commit itself to prioritizing use of public prisons, state workers, and taxpayer accountability over for-profit prisons. Colorado's corrections policy must emphasize responsibility, not profitability.
In the past two years, the Colorado Department of Corrections has taken state beds offline and outright closed state-run facilities. And while there have been some closures of for-profit facilities, state appropriations for Corrections Corporation of America's for-profit prisons rose in the 2012-13 fiscal year by nearly $4 million. For the 2013-14 fiscal year, the department is now requesting an additional $1.3 million increase in payments to our for-profit prison providers.
For-profit prisons are a multibillion-dollar industry. The two largest for-profit prison corporations (CCA and GEO Group) had over $2.9 billion in revenue in 2010. Industry profits have grown exponentially since 1984, when the first for-profit prison in the country opened. But with their bottom line threatened, for-profit prisons are seeking ways to keep making money, including inmate bed guarantees and buying state facilities. They also pay workers as little as possible, so little that many private prison workers qualify for public assistance.
The industry's interests are the same as any other for-profit industry or corporation: maximum profits for shareholders. And while there certainly is nothing wrong with the pursuit of profit, there is a huge question mark over whether or not that motive belongs in our correctional system. The more prisoners, the better for them. The for-profit prison model is marketed to policymakers and taxpayers as a way to save the state money, but the daily rate that is paid covers only the most basic costs associated with inmates. Health care, emergency response (including riot response), legal liability and oversight of the facilities are still public obligations.
Taxpayers should be wary of the for-profit prison industry's instinct to shave costs and find savings anywhere they can, which in turn puts the public, workers and inmates at risk. A prime example of this lies in what happened at CCA's Crowley County facility in 2004. There, during a riot by about 300 inmates, the for-profit staff was ordered to abandon their posts and stand down until CDOC arrived. After the state cleaned up the mess, reports later found that everything that could go wrong did go wrong, costing taxpayers millions.
By contrast, public facilities are safer and better equipped to respond to the challenges of a 21st century corrections system. Employees are better compensated through health and retirement benefits and can envision a long-term career in public safety. At the end of the day, a public corrections facility is fully accountable to the taxpayers.
A Prison Utilization Study was recently commissioned by the state legislature in order to examine how best to handle the changes in inmate population. While that study will provide policymakers with brick-and-mortar data, no study will be able to provide us with an answer to the ethical questions raised by the state's continued reliance of the for-profit prison industry.
Taxpayers deserve better, and the first step should be to implement a state-bed-first policy. As public beds become available, inmates in the private system should be automatically transferred to public facilities. Colorado must begin transitioning away from private prisons.
David Pertz is a correctional officer in Delta and secretary of Colorado WINS. Paul Carlson is pastor of Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Denver.
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Thursday, February 28, 2013
The Denver Post