Privatization and the “Addiction to Prisons”

When following the private prison industry it is easy to get swept away in the furvor of media reports of abuses, negligence, and insufficiencies while forgetting to answer a seemingly essential question: is privatization working? I spoke with Corrections Corporation of America lobbyist Laurie Shanblum last April, and from that conversation I believed that she felt the private prison system was indeed an effective fix for the present and legitimate plan for the future of corrections:

Private Prison Watch: What does the future hold for the corrections industry in the next ten to fifteen years?

Laurie Shanblum: I can see significant amounts of criminal justice departments contracting to CCA, and our hope is that entire police departments will privatize by this time, not just individual facilities.

PPW: If an entire police department became privatized, what would happen to the safety of the citizens if that company went bankrupt?

LS: If a [prison] company were to go bankrupt, I can see it being bought by another corrections company.

Aside from deflecting the question and not answering what I asked, this answer led me to believe that those involved in the prison industry believe that somehow their market for prisons will always exist–that prisons are really that great of an idea. Surely there is not shortage of demand for prisoners, as by 2008 the United States had incarcerated 2.3 million people, largely surpassing any other country or continent. Of these 2.3 million total prisoners, 1.2 million of them are or were in jail for drug crimes. These numbers are largely due in part to draconic punishments for non-violent crimes, a testament to the past. The prison market appears relatively stable… for now.

These conservative tough on crime policies are largely going by the wayside, which means the future for the prison industry appears bleak as drug policy reform would mean less available prisoners to fill the cells. More money in federal budgets has been allocated to rehabilitation clinics to treat drug addiction as a health problem rather than a criminal problem. The most popular solution in recent years has been the funding of Drug Courts:

“Eligible drug-addicted persons may be sent to Drug Court in lieu of traditional justice system case processing. Drug Courts keep individuals in treatment long enough for it to work, while supervising them closely. For a minimum term of one year, participants are provided with intensive treatment and other services they require to get and stay clean and sober; [they are] held accountable by the Drug Court judge for meeting their obligations to the court, society, themselves and their families; regularly and randomly tested for drug use; required to appear in court frequently so that the judge may review their progress; and rewarded for doing well or sanctioned when they do not live up to their obligations.”

The goal of Drug Court funding is to find an alternative place to store around half of the total incarcerated population of the United States while providing them their own specialized way of healing from their addiction. Barry McCaffrey recently wrote a piece where he quoted a retired Minnesota Judge Dennis Challeen’s thoughts on why prisons are a failing enterprise, from which one can infer the need for improvement:

“We want them to have self-worth

So we destroy their self-worth

We want them to be responsible

So we take away all responsibility

We want them to be positive and constructive

So we degrade them and make them useless

We want them to be trustworthy

So we put them where there is no trust

We want them to be non-violent

So we put them where violence is all around them

We want them to be kind and loving people

So we subject them to hatred and cruelty

We want them to quit being the tough guy

So we put them where the tough guy is respected

We want them quit hanging around losers

So we put all the losers in the state under one roof

We want them to quit exploiting us

So we put them where they exploit each other

We want them to take control of their lives, own problems and quit being a parasite on society

So we make them totally dependent on us”

Quick End of the American Private Police Force

To be honest, I am a little disappointed to report this news. I was enjoying my time laughing at the American Private Police Force stories and their copyright infringements. But, perhaps it is for the best. Some surprising news came from the Associated Press last Friday regarding Michael Hilton, the newest and sketchiest American prison industry opportunist. In a story by AP writer, Matthew Brown, Mr. Hilton admits what everyone suspected was already the case. “The California con man who failed in his bid to take over an empty Montana jail testified Friday that he is out of money, does not have the corporate backing he once claimed and even struggles to pay rent on his apartment” (AP). Not only is he personally out of money, but the APPF account is already $2,000 overdrawn after wasting a $100,000 investment from four different private investors — one of whom was Hilton’s girlfriend.

“With no other job, Hilton said he has dismissed his few employees and is now four months behind on his rent. ‘I’m out of the game. I’m done,’ he said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press following his court appearance. ‘All the expenses – the payroll, the rent, traveling – I paid all these'”(AP). If you have been following the APPF story here, you will remember how the one employee in the prison has to ask the city of Hardin for the keys every morning to open the jail. She was also given a house and a company car as a signing bonus for joining with APPF, which were most likely paid out-of-pocket by Hilton, not the company itself.

All of this was uncovered as he was in court for a 2000 civil case with the plaintiff seeking $700,000 in fraud damages from Hilton. “according to a lawyer for the building contractor in the 2000 case, as reported by the Billings Gazette, Hilton also testified that he had no experience, training or licensing for police or prison work, and that APPF had no parent company and no other staff. Hilton had previously represented to Hardin that his company was an established security contractor active in all 50 states and working with the U.S. government. Hilton also said that back in July, he told Greg Smith, then the head of Hardin’s economic development arm, about his criminal past, and was told it wouldn’t be a problem. Smith, who led the effort to work with Hilton, was put on administrative leave in September, for reasons that have not been made public” (TPM).

There are two important lessons that Hardin, Montana should learn from this experience. The first: never speculatively build a prison and expect that prisoners will fill it. If you absolutely must construct a new facility, make sure that it is necessary and that there is a demand (and that you can actually legally import out-of-state prisoners, as Montana can not). Both of these criteria are seemingly obvious enough, but with the rise in popularity of private prisons, many counties and states are building a “field of dreams” for prison companies, building it and hoping “they” will come. The second lesson: do some research on who you are signing a contract with. If dedicated bloggers over at TPM Muckracker and Private Corrections Institute are able to do the job that a whole economics bureau can not, maybe its time to seek some new employees — or start trusting the independent media. Nick Lough from TPM and Frank Smith from PCI (and their teams) both did excellent jobs in uncovering this story before Hilton even had a chance to admit that he was lying. Everyone had a feeling this was the case, and last Friday we finally had closure from this fraudulent make-believe company. I hope this is the last we hear from Michael Hilton and the American Private Police Force, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he tried this again, as APPF was not his first venture. We will all be watching and waiting, and if he does try to start something again, I hope it is as humorous as his last attempt.