This article appeared in Ceylon Today on June 30 2014.
I have written before about the American prison system. Those articles were prompted by the irony of American politicians and NGOs criticising Sri Lanka for keeping 350,000 displaced people in camps in 2009. There are more than 2.3 million people in US prisons, more than any other nation on earth, a half million more than China, which has a population five times greater than the US. America has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. African-Americans account for 12% of the US population, but 40% of the US prison population. In 2005, 8.1% of all black males aged25 to 29 were in prison.
Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?
Americans are locked up for crimes that would not warrant incarceration elsewhere. One is shocked to read in Dickens or Hugo about people being executed or transported to Australia for stealing a loaf of bread. Bill Clinton’s “three strikes” law means that a lengthy sentence can be imposed for stealing a slice of pizza. The law made it necessary to build 20 new federal prisons. One prisoner received three 25-year sentences for stealing a car and two bicycles.
More than 200,000 youths are tried as adults in the US every year, and on any given day, 8,500 kids under 18 are confined in adult prisons. Only 34% of those in juvenile detention are there for violent crimes; many are confined for running away from abuse at home. 12.1% of young people questioned in a survey said that they had been sexually abused at their current juvenile detention facility during the preceding year. Rates of HIV/AIDS are several times higher inside US prisons than outside, just as they are much higher among black Americans than white. As rape is a common in US jails, incarceration for trivial offences can amount to an unadjudicated death sentence.
The Prison-Industrial Complex
The US prison system is a multimillion-dollar industry with its own trade exhibitions, conventions and websites. At least 37 states have legalised the contracting of prison labour by private corporations, including Microsoft and IBM, to operate inside state prisons. The number of prisoners in private prisons tripled between 1987 and 2007. By 2007, there were 264 such prison facilities, housing almost 99,000 adult prisoners. Prison bonds provide a lucrative return for capitalist investors such as Merrill-Lynch, American Express and Allstate. Prisoners are traded from one state to another for profit.
The highest-paying private prison company is CCA (Correctional Corporation of America). CCA’s prisoners receive 50 cents per hour for “highly skilled positions”. For any infraction, CCA inmates get 30 days added to their sentence, which means more profits for CCA. Between 1982 and 1994 the prison population of the USA rose 2.7-fold and most of the newly convicted were fit young people, mainly unemployed. Was this coincidence or was the increase in the prison population deliberately engineered to provide a large but very cheap work-force to meet the needs of labour-intensive industries?
There was certainly one example of a judge who was a major shareholder in a private prison who had no compunction about sentencing young men to work in his prison to increase his profits.
Reducing Prison Population
However, things may be changing. In the past few years, politicians from both major parties have begun to turn against mass incarceration. Attorney General Eric Holder has routinely condemned the “inadvisable and unsustainable” policies that have made America’s prison population by far the largest in the world. Even Republican presidential contenders are having a rethink. In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie has denounced a “failed war on drugs that believes incarceration is the cure of every ill.” In Texas, Governor Rick Perry has redirected two billion dollars from the prison economy toward alternatives like drug treatment. Incarceration rates have slowly declined since 2010; conventional private prisons may no longer be a growth industry.
There are still ways to turn a profit. Sarah Stillman, (who once vividly described the plight of Sri Lankan migrant workers in the Middle East) in an excellent article in the New Yorker, recounts the tale of a woman who was arrested and jailed for a string of traffic tickets that she was unable to pay.
A judge sentenced the woman to two years of probation with Judicial Correction Services, a for-profit company. She would owe JCS the sum of two hundred dollars a month, with forty of it going toward a “supervision” fee. She paid whatever she could, but when she lost her job, she often could not pay. Her total court costs and fines soared from hundreds of dollars incurred by the initial tickets to $4,713, including more than a thousand dollars in private-probation fees.
Federal law in the eighteen-thirties abolished debtors’ prisons. However, people across America are routinely jailed for fees and fines that they are too poor to pay, fines and probation that are supposed to be an alternative to prison.
Many courts allow probation officers to decide whether an offender possesses the financial means to pay their fines and probation fees. When that probation officer is the employee of a private company, this creates a direct conflict of interest. A probation company’s revenues are entirely derived from the fees probationers pay them. Companies’ financial interests are often best served by using the threat of imprisonment to squeeze probationers and their families as hard as possible.
Profitable Alternatives to Prison
Private-prison corporations themselves have seen the opportunity for profit in alternatives to prison. The industry aims to shift the financial burden of probation directly onto probationers. Often, this means charging petty offenders for a government service that was once provided free. These probationers are not just paying a court-ordered fine; they are typically paying an ever-growing share of the court’s administrative expenses, as well as a separate fee to the for-profit company that supervises their probation and enforces a payment schedule.
Correctional Healthcare Companies claims that it deals with the “full spectrum” of offenders’ lives: “pre-custody, in custody, and post-custody.” The GEO Group runs private prisons all over the world (including the UK). There have been many deaths in their premises. They are now expanding into “community re-entry services”, treatment programmes and electronic-monitoring. In 2010, Judicial Correction Services made the magazine Inc.’s list of “the fastest growing private companies in America,” for the third year in a row. JCS’s fees included $240 for a course in something called “Moral Reconation Therapy.” CCA bought a California-based enterprise called Correctional Alternatives.
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch recently published a harrowing survey. The report was based largely on more than 75 interviews conducted with people in the states of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi during the second half of 2013. It describes patterns of abuse and financial hardship inflicted by the “offender-funded” model of privatised probation that prevails in well over 1,000 courts across the US. It shows how some company probation officers behave like abusive debt collectors.
Blood from a Stone
The courts issue thousands of arrest warrants for offenders who fail to make adequate payments towards fines and probation company fees even though the original offence carried no real threat of jail time. In Georgia, Thomas Barrett pleaded guilty to stealing a can of beer and was fined US$200. He was jailed for failing to pay over a thousand dollars in fees to his probation company, even though his entire income—money he earned by selling his own blood plasma—was less than what he was being charged in monthly probation fees.
Legal challenges to “offender-funded justice” are mounting, amid concerns about abuse, corruption, conflicts of interest and the use of state penalties to collect private profits. In a wide range of cases, “offender-funded justice” may not result in justice at all.
The business of many private probation companies is built largely on the willingness of courts to discriminate against poor offenders who can only afford to pay their fines in instalments. It is a blatant conflict of interest when the companies making a profit are allowed to determine how much an offender can afford to pay. Financial incentives colour their judgement.
In Alabama, people know the town of Harpersville as a speed trap, a stretch of country highway where the speed limit changes six times in roughly as many miles. Traffic fines were the biggest business in the town of 1,600. In 2005, the court’s revenue was nearly three times the amount that the town received from a sales tax.
In July 2012, Judge Hub Harrington of Shelby County, Alabama halted Judicial Correction Services’ aggressive pursuit of fines owed the Harpersville Municipal Court. He stated:”From a fair reading of the defendant’s testimony, one might ascertain that more apt description of the Harpersville Municipal Court is that of a judicially sanctioned extortion racket.”