Our Common Good

Seventeen-year-old Hillary Transue did what lots of 17-year-olds do: Got into mischief. Hillary’s mischief was composing a MySpace page poking fun at the assistant principal of the high school she attended in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Hillary was an honor student who’d never had any trouble with the law before. And her MySpace page stated clearly that the page was a joke. But despite all that, Hilary found herself charged with harassment. She stood before a judge and heard him sentence her to three months in a juvenile detention facility.

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It wasn’t until two years later that she found out why. In Scranton, Pennsylvania, two judges pleaded guilty to operating a kickback scheme involving juvenile offenders. The judges, Mark Ciavarella Jr. and Michael Conahan, took more than $2.6 million in kickbacks from a private prison company to send teenagers to two privately run youth detention centers. Since 2003, Ciaverella had sentenced an estimated 5,000 juveniles. Conahan was accused of setting up the contracts. Many of the youngsters shipped off to the detention centers were first-time offenders.

PA Child Care is a juvenile detention center in Pittston Township, Pennsylvania. It was opened in February 2003. It has a sister company, Western PA Child Care, in Butler County, Pennsylvania. Treatment at both facilities is provided by Mid Atlantic Youth Services. Gregory Zappala took sole ownership of the company when he purchased co-owner Robert Powell’s share in June 2008.

In July 2009, Powell pled guilty to failing to report a felony and being an accessory to tax evasion conspiracy in connection with $770,000 in kickbacks he paid to Ciavarella and Conahan in exchange for facilitating the development of his facilities.

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Today, the United States has locked up more prisoners than any other country in the world - 2.3 million-plus people locked up in state and federal prisons and county jails. This has predictably resulted in a shortage of publicly owned prison beds - a shortage increasingly being filled by companies that charge so many dollars for each convict sent their way.

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For-profit prison companies claim to be able to provide prison and detention services to cities, counties, states and the federal government for less money - an idea that cash-strapped communities apparently find irresistible.

Yet, studies throughout the country show that private prisons are only marginally less expensive than public prisons and are often substantially more expensive. The second issue is a medical care regimen that, until recently, allowed the government such wide discretion that it could deny urgent care, including biopsies for suspected cancers and treatment of heart conditions.

Moreover, a panoply of hidden subsidies is rarely calculated into the private prison industry’s cost claims. According to a study by Paul Wright, the founder and editor of “Prison Legal News,” a prisoners’ rights advocacy newsletter, at least 44, or 73 percent, of the 60 facilities (studied) had received a development subsidy from local, state and/or federal government sources. Subsidies were found in 17 of the 19 states in which the 60 facilities are located.

Read it all here.  Then write your state and federal reps and tell them we don’t need or want privately run prisons. If the state sentences someone to jail, then the state needs to assume the responsibility for the incarcerated individual.