Skip to main content

The private prison industry is on the march. In recent months the industry moved to take over 24 state prisons in southern Florida and buy five prisons in Ohio. Now it’s making moves in Michigan.

But the industry doesn’t always win. Resistance isn’t futile.

The industry wanted to buy five prisons in Ohio but had to settle for one. Community members pushed back and corrections professionals raised doubts about cost savings and program effectiveness. Policy Matters Ohio demonstrated that selling the prison will likely cost more money than it produces. Yes, the state gets $73 million immediately for the sale – but the lease commits the state to pay $4 million annually for 20 years. So depending how cost estimates are done, the sale will end up costing the state anywhere from $8 million to $15 million more than traditional corrections.

Florida shows that the prison industry can’t make an honest case for the product it sells. The move to privatize 24 prisons was slipped into the annual budget bill, and opponents were literally eliminated. The Corrections chief, Edwin Buss, was forced to resign after expressing doubt that a proper “business case” for cost savings could be made. Senator Paula Dockery (R-Lakeland), an outspoken critic of privatization, was stripped of her seaton the Criminal Justice Committee, where such legislation is ordinarily heard. Senator Mike Fasano (R-New Port Richey) was stripped of his chairmanship of the Committee on Criminal Justice Appropriations when he questioned the accelerated process, compressed hearing schedule, and absence of opposing experts.

The legislation institutionalizes secrecy. SB 2036 exempts prisons from the “applicable cost benefit analyses, business case analyses, performance contracting procedures, service comparisons, and impacts on performance standards” used in every other procurement. No such analysis would be done until after the contract has been executed.

SB 2036 turns procurement into a joke. First, buy my car. Then, after you buy it, you can check my car’s condition, compare it to your own car or see if you need a new car at all.

A truly heroic effort killed the bill. A lawsuit by the Police Benevolent Association enforced the state law requiring that such action be in separate legislation not buried in general appropriations. Organized labor, faith groups and local leaders rose up in opposition. The privatization failed in a 21-19 Senate vote on Valentines Day.

Now Michigan. Michigan is interesting because it holds a bleeding wound. The North Lake Correctional Center in Baldwin was private from the beginning, built by Wackenhut now known as the GEO Group. The prison opened in 1999, closed in 2005, and had nothing but problems in between.

The North Lake prison was more expensive than 33 out of 37 other Michigan prisons. The state was paying $75.81 per person per day for confinement that cost $64.89 per day in sufficiently secure state facilities – even though the contractor was failing to provide counseling programs or contractually required levels of staff. At the same time, North Lake was three times more violent than Michigan’s other maximum-security prisons. In the first five months of operation North Lake reported 110 critical incidents, including 46 assaults and 12 attempted suicides.

The state didn’t even need the secure space it thought it might – so it did the right thing. It served notice and closed the facility.

GEO sued to keep the prison open or compel the state to continue making lease payments anyway. But GEO lost the lawsuit and the facility sat empty for years. GEO spent $60 million renovating it from 500 juveniles to 1,700 adults and landed some inmates from California for a few months in 2011 – but the contract didn’t last and the facility again sits empty. GEO is paying capital costs and a skeleton crew for no reason.

Michigan’s new privatization proposal bails GEO out. Even though Michigan has been reducing its prison population (from 51,515 in 2006 to 44,113 in 2010) and may not need all of its present secure capacity, the new proposal adds North Lake to the roster.

Moves are also being made to privatize food service and medical care – but this, too doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Michigan has a history of trouble contracting for health care in prisons, and privatizing food service leads to myriad hidden costs. In 2007, the Department of Corrections found that using outside food service staff required adding at least one state corrections officer during operations — even though the time shows up as department costs not vendor costs.

But resistance isn’t futile. A coalition of working people is coming together to oppose the plans. The Michigan Corrections Organization (MCO), acting in alliance with four different labor unions, published a scathing report that itemizes the false promises and real pitfalls of private prison contracting. The report also includes twenty questions that any legislator considering such privatization needs to be able to answer in advance (eg. How are cost comparisons made? Will the prison contractor reimburse the host city for the local police cost of tracking down escapees?)

Mel Grieshaber, Executive Director of MCO: "Privatization is tempting because corporations make all kinds of promises, but they don’t deliver on the cost savings and they don’t run their facilities safely.... Taxpayers should question why the Legislature is rushing to approve a plan that will give more profits to a corporation that already failed here."
Even as the union report crunched the numbers and questioned the costs and benefits, faith leaders came together to express opposition to the practice of incarcerating people as a means of generating corporate profit. Coalition partners walked the hallways of the statehouse, talking with legislators, distributing copies of the report and making sure people know about the 20 questions. The faith community is circulating a petition, in the spirit of the Methodist church, which has divested its pension funds from private prison companies.

It’s only beginning. We don’t know how it will end.  But the facts are on our side … and resistance isn’t futile.

This note was originally published at SEIU.

Originally posted to Eric Lotke on Tue Feb 28, 2012 at 11:54 AM PST.

Also republished by American Legislative Transparency Project and ClassWarfare Newsletter: WallStreet VS Working Class Global Occupy movement.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site