Monetizing Human Misery

By a Recovering Public Defender from Kentucky

"All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."  I was involved in the criminal justice system for almost 10 years – 3 years as a prosecutor and 7 years as a criminal defense attorney. It seems like in every trial the prosecutor  used this quote in their closing argument. It was a great way to play on the jury’s fear that if they did not convict this defendant, other bad things would happen.

Unfortunately, I am continually surprised and saddened by how the people of faith (who I thought were the “good men”) often do nothing in the face of evil.  Nothing. Silence. Crickets. They are uninformed and unaware of the workings of the criminal “justice” system.  While they often tout the “rule of law” and the greatness of the American justice system, they have no real knowledge of how it works. 

For those 10 years, I probably spent at least one full day a week in Court during Motion hour when all the cases are heard – everything from the original appearance to the sentencing. It was a parade of human misery and hopelessness in all aspects that was soul numbing to behold. Very little good was going to come out of it. The victims were not going to be made whole and the defendants were not going to receive any rehabilitation that would prevent future offenses. It was a mass churning of humanity for no apparent reason whatsoever except a violation of the law demanded punishment. 

I have always thought it strange that Jesus admonishes us to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien, and the prisoner.  Unlike the first four, however, society would say that the prisoner had control of his circumstances  and got what he deserved. Why does Jesus continuously require us to care for the prisoner? Is there a difference between a criminal and a prisoner? What is Jesus trying to tell us? Maybe prisoners have less control over their circumstances than we think. It is pretty striking that the United States has only 5% of the world’s population but incarcerates 25% of the world’s population. How did this happen? That’s easy – follow the money.

For-profit or private prisons are a $3.3 billion industry with the two largest players being CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) and the GEO Group. From 1989 to 2015, for-profit prisons gave $10 million to candidates and spent $25 million on lobbying efforts. Over the past 13 years, one for-profit prison company alone has given $6 million to politicians. Needless to say, the population of for-profit prisons doubled from 2000 to 2010 and the number of for-profit prisons increased by 1,600% from 1990 and 2010. In 2016, private prisons housed 7% of state prisoners, 18% of federal prisoners, and 75% of the immigration detainees.

Private prisons operate nine out of the 10 Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Detention Centers. Since 2009, ICE’s detention budget includes a Congressional mandate that at least 34,000 detention beds be maintained for immigrants on a daily basis even though the undocumented population has levelled off. Since we are paying for these beds anyway, this quota exerts a massive pressure on ICE to detain individuals instead of seeking less costly or invasive means. As of October 2016, ICE is detaining 40,000 people.

While the industry says that it does not lobby on the issues of incarceration or detention, between 2008 and 2014 it spent $10.5 million on lobbying for policies that would increase incarceration rates. In fact, CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) chaired a Criminal Justice Task Force on behalf of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which successfully pushed “three strikes” and “truth in sentencing” laws which extended prison terms.

These laws have a direct impact on the corporation’s bottom line because two-thirds of the private prison contracts require the government to keep the facility at a certain capacity (usually 90%).  In Arizona, three private prisons are operating with a 100% capacity guarantee and the state was forced to pay the private prison contractor $3 million to rent empty bed space. Colorado does not have enough criminals so it closed its prisons and sent all the inmates to the private prison to honor its contract, a waste of $2 million. 

Studies have shown that private prisons are not more cost effective, cut costs for necessities, do not spend anything on prisoner training programs, and have higher rates of assault. Because of these problems, many states have ceased to use private prisons. Iowa, Texas, Mississippi, and Kentucky cut ties with private prisons in 2013. But while, Kentucky closed its last private prison in 2013, the legislature approved a budget in 2016 that allowed them to open three private prisons.

The Obama Department of Justice was moving to cut ties with private prisons but the Trump Department of Justice reversed this decision. Moreover, while this does not include the ICE detention facilities run by the Department of Homeland Security, Trump has also expanded immigrate detention.

This is not surprising given that GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) both donated $250,000 for Trump’s inaugural festivities. GEO had also given $225,000 to a super PAC that helped elect Trump. Stocks in both of these companies are up more than 100% since Election Day.

While some churches have divested from private prisons and several churches have condemned private prisons, where is the clamor of the faithful?  Far from caring for the prisoner as required, we have monetized the warehousing of human beings and called it good.

Reverend Michael McBride of the PICO National Network said it so eloquently when he said that “It’s important for us to step back and look at this from a moral perspective; … it’s reprehensible to imprison someone for … financial motives. It’s important to always remember every single person is a human being … even if they have done something we may find problematic or illegal. They are not profit incentives.” Human misery as a profit incentive -- I don’t think that’s what Jesus intended.


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