From Newsweek: Do Rural Prisons Benefit Locals?

•July 8, 2010 • 1 Comment

Is it fair to count an inmate as a resident of the town in which they are imprisoned?

In the most recent Newsweek, writer Ben Adler peels back the layered benefits to prisons in upstate New York via the lens of his own family: in 1983, a summer resort run by his great-grandparents was transformed into Sullivan Correctional Facility. As New York state’s prison population swelled from 13,000 in 1970 to over 70,000 today, housing inmates from NYC  became a lucrative business for otherwise destitute upstate towns.  “Ironically, the prisoners—mostly low-income men of color—bring two things they themselves lack: economic and political power,” writes Adler. That’s because during the Census, those tens of thousands of prisoners are counted in the rural places in which they are imprisoned rather than their homes, even though they cannot vote. The result is an skewed diversion of legislative clout to sparsely-populated, rural towns  — often called prison-based gerrymandering.

The northward flow of NY state inmates, as graphed in Newsweek

Now, the prison population is falling and communities such as Ogdensburg and Mineville fight tenaciously to keep their prisons open, New York assembly members have put together a bill to end a practice which The New York Times just called “a way of hijacking power from one part of the state to another.”

Last week,  Delaware became the second state (after Maryland) to pass a bill that adjusts Census data so that inmates are counted at their home addresses rather than the prisons in which they temporarily reside. No such legislation is yet proposed in New Hampshire, but when a federal prison opens there next year, nearly 17 percent of the population will be behind bars—roughly 2,000 men (1,200 in the federal, 760 or so in the state prison)  in a city of 10,000.


A sneak peek at Berlin’s prison

•July 4, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Local officials were given a tour of FCI-Berlin this week. Though the facility is almost finished, some of the funding hangs in the balance — Congress has been ornery about approving the proposed 2011 Justice Department budget, mostly because they don’t like the idea of using an Illinois prison (in Thomson) as a Guantanamo replacement. (However, the DOJ announced last week that they intend to purchase Thomson anyway.)

I’ve heard that some of the houses on Success Road, closest to the prison site, have begun selling to future FCI-Berlin employees, including one who is being transferred from Massachusetts. The lights haven’t bothered anyone yet and its unclear whether they’ve been turned on full throttle. The original commissioning schedule had prisoners arriving at FCI-Berlin this fall, but several papers in New Hampshire reported that date is more likely to be later next year.

“The Rainmakers” in Hardin, Montana move on to Arizona

•March 14, 2010 • 1 Comment

Why would a small town saddle itself with $27 million in bond issues to build a prison with no guarantee of bodies to fill it?  In this month’s In These Times, Montana freelance journalist Beau Hodai details the dubious ways  that a small private prison contractor—in this case Corplan Corrections, a Texas-based consortium of “construction companies, bond underwriters, consultants and small private prison operators,”— convinced this hard-on-its-luck town to build a prison to drag itself from the doldrums. Two-and-a-half years after completion, the 464-bed prison continues to gather dust, while the town has defaulted on its bonds. In the fall of 2009, city officials signed a contract with a private security force that promised to get the prison up and running; the American Police Force turned out to be all bluster and no bite, a shady concern with little financial power to help out tiny Hardin.

Hodai points out this is a gig that may be up for private prison companies. “…. with the prison population leveling out and more states facing budgetary crises, lawmakers have questioned the wisdom of stiff sentencing guidelines. Consequently, the private-prison industry has moved onto the greener pastures of immigration detention centers.”

Enter Benson, Arizona. Undaunted by the mess it left behind in Hardin, Corplan reps have been meeting privately with Benson officials to suggest the town build an immigration detention facility for women and children, tentatively called the “Family Residential Center of the Southwest.” Corplan and its subcontractors would be paid through bond issues, and the town would eventually see profits via the per-diem fees that the federal government would pay for each detainee. (This is a carbon copy of the sell in Hardin.)

This week, Benson residents attended the first public hearing on the proposal, as reported by Thelma Grimes in the San Pedro Valley News-Sun. Some residents have complained that the plan has taken shape without their input. Mayor Mark Fenn told them:

” I realize that the nature of the center is very controversial. Do we as a city put our foot down and say as Americans we don’t support this? At some time there could be up to 150 well-paying jobs. You have to balance all that. How much of our political opinion do we interject into city business? I will go on record saying I don’t completely endorse this facility. The company may have a checkered history and background and a lot of questions to answer on finances.”

He also said that if the facility isn’t built in Benson, “it will be built somewhere else where another city could reap the economic benefits.”  Possibly, at least according to Corplan’s president James Parkey. On the company’s website, he says plainly:  “Now, there are many more communities wanting detention centers than are available. But if your community qualifies, Corplan Corrections will make it possible for you. We may even be able to show you how your community can qualify.” You will qualify, almost guaranteed —to see why, check out Hodai’s piece.

A ‘Talent Team’ forms in New Hampshire

•March 9, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The power of consonant expressions is that they are memorable, and hence more likely to fall into everyday usage. ‘Talent Team’ is one such couplet, implying as it does collaboration, chirpiness, and a drive toward success. The term entered northern New England parlance last week after a meeting at White Mountain Community College in Berlin, NH, where local officials met with BOP recruitment specialist Cathi Litcher (via videoconference) to discuss how to improve the chances that local applicants might land jobs at the soon-to-be-opened FCI-Berlin. Litcher told the group that, on average, only one-tenth of local applicants are eligible to work in a federal prison—mostly due to age restrictions, dints in their credit histories, or other personal issues, I’m guessing—but that a recent push to gather more local personnel for FCI-Macdowell (in West Virginia) “increased local eligibility to 65 percent.”  In this case, eligibility means mounting the first hurdle, but regardless, the peeps in Macdowell are hooking up with peeps in Berlin to help them get more local people ready to apply. The community college in Berlin plans to bring a trainer up  from West Virginia to guide applicants through the “complicated and convoluted process,” according Mark Belanger, who heads the employment office in Berlin. Those workshops will culminate with students submitting their application online. Belanger said he sees people checking out the bulletin board devoted to jobs at FCI-Berlin, “but this prison has been talk for so many years that people turn a deaf ear to it.” He tries to tell them that it is finally happening for real.

Asked if Berlin, like other parts of the country, is seeing the stirrings of economic recovery, he paused. “No, it’s awful.” He cited the trend of heavy industries hiring back workers once they start getting orders in. “But the North Country economy is different than the rest of the nation. Here, we don’t have companies that laid people off. They closed, they’re gone. What companies do we have to hire people back? None.” A stark glimpse into why prisons come to places like Berlin, and are even welcomed.

Prisons, schools, prisons, schools, prisons….

•March 4, 2010 • Leave a Comment

College students across California are protesting education cuts today, and coincidentally (or not) a billboard has appeared along LA’s Sunset Boulevard that starkly highlights the choices made by state legislators. It was designed by artist Martha Rosler and designer Josh Neufeld. (“California is #1 in prison spending, and #48 in education.”)

Private prisons: guaranteed income

•February 17, 2010 • Leave a Comment

“[The prison business is] “like a hotel where you lock in the guests, and if they try to escape you shoot them.” —hedge fund manager William Ackman in October 2009, telling a group of investors why they should buy stock in Corrections Corporation of America (“Jailhouse Shock,”  by Steve Schaefer, Forbes magazine, 10.21.09)

Last week, Corrections Corporation of America announced their 2009 financials, and the company seems to be navigating tough times with a certain degree of nimbleness: CCA’s revenue increased 4% since the prior year, to $427 million. For those who have never heard of them, CCA is the biggest manager of the private prisons nationwide, administering 65 prisons in 19 states,  76,000 inmates in all. Roughly 1 in 12 federal prisoners and are in private, for-profit prisons; yet despite growing inmate rolls, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for CCA of late. The company has 85,000 beds all together, which means roughly 7,000 of those sit empty. In a business where you can earn almost $23 per day on an inmate, this is bad news for investors. Three lucrative contracts (worth $65 million) between the state of Arizona and CCA  expire this spring, meaning that thousands of prisoners  at CCA prisons in Oklahoma and Colorado would be called ‘home’.  After the loss of a contract with Washington state, CCA closed one of its prisons in Appleton, Minnesota; the company has also had to nix plans to build a new lock-up near Prescott, Arizona due to local opposition.

It’s part and parcel to the current slowdown, when several states are considering early releases and other measures to reduce their corrections budgets and save money. But since its founding in 1984 (after a  remarkable start in Houston in 1984, and a takeover of a Tennessee prison that same year) the company has grown by the proverbial leaps.  Ackman is probably right—these recent stumbling blocks are nothing but blips on the radar, because even in tough times, private prisons will continue to proliferate. Here’s why: state prisons at running at 110 percent of capacity, on average, and federal prisons at 137 percent. Guards at private prisons make less than their state/federal counterparts, and are thinner on the ground, so these prisons are cheaper to operate. And when you are in danger of running a deficit, as so many states are now, it’s cheaper to contract with a private company than try and build a new prison yourself. Case in point is again, Arizona: despite not renewing current CCA contracts, the state has proposed to privatize their entire prison system to save money.

The 25-year surge in private prisons, and the meteoric growth of the companies that build and manage them, provides perhaps the starkest example that housing inmates is about profits as much as—or more than—it is about deterrence. Despite the band of passionate people that travel throughout this country organizing against private prisons wherever they are proposed, and despite warnings that private prisons will die in this recession, the surreal business of housing inmates for revenue is not going anywhere soon.

Out of work? Justice is hiring

•February 9, 2010 • Leave a Comment

As cash-challenged states such as California and Kansas cope with budget crunches (in part) by closing their prisons and jails, the Obama administration is taking the opposite tack— beefing up law enforcement and incarceration across the board. As part of a proposed $1.5 billion increase for the Justice Department in 2011, an additional $527.5 million would be allotted for the Bureau of Prisons, bringing their annual budget to $6.8 billion. Much of that increase ($170m) would go toward purchasing and renovating the Thomson Correctional Facility in Illinois, where Obama hopes to house Guantanamo prisoners after they are moved to US soil.  But here is math I don’t understand: while $59 million would be used to fill 1,200 currently vacant prison jobs,  a much larger chunk—$95 million—would be spent next year to hire only 652 new prison guards, to be split between Thomson and the new federal prison in Berlin, N.H. Special training perhaps?

Alternatives to incarceration—such as  home detention and substance abuse/mental illness treatment—are seeing renewed interest in states that realize how unwieldy and expensive their prison/jail systems have become. Not so on the federal level, where overcrowding and understaffing continue to plague prisons and attacks on  guards “are becoming more severe,” according to a spokeswoman for the BOP. John Gage, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, calls the situation “dire” and went on the record as applauding plans for hundreds of new hires.

The nation’s prisons wouldn’t be the only new law enforcement on the the scene; the 5 percent Justice Department increase will also go toward hiring attorneys and analysts, as well as nearly 450 additional agents and marshals in the FBI, BATF, and US Marshals Service, for a total net increase of 2,800 employees. The Department is also predicting that the federal prison system will grow by 7,000 inmates in 2011, the equivalent of three or so new prisons.

All this might make you think  hey, crime rates must be on the rise. No — they are actually falling. According the FBI’s own statistics, both violent crimes and property crimes decreased during the first half of 2009, despite the recession.