Over the last several decades, the nation’s prison population has tripled and annual prison spending increased by over $40 billion dollars. State and federal budgets are pushed to the limits as they work to fund existing prisons and jails. To further complicate matters, the high numbers of offenders who recidivate, or return to jail, burden an already crowded system. It seems that no one—inmates, prison officials—is “winning.” No one, that is, except for the private corporations that now run many of the country’s prisons.
For the most part, the nation’s prisons fall under the guidance of both the federal and state governments. However, more and more states are allowing private contractors to step in and build and manage prisons. Supporters of prison privatization say the practice takes the heavy burden of prison facility management off of the government, freeing up money and streamlining prison operations. But, how accountable are these contractors? Is protecting their bottom line more important than properly protecting and rehabilitating the prisoners? If you’re familiar with recent incidents at Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Jackson, Miss., you might be inclined to think, to private contractors who run prisons, profit trumps all.
Walnut Grove houses young men, 90 percent of whom are African-American, between the ages of 13 and 22. The facility is run by GEO Group, the nation’s second largest provider of private correctional facility management services. The company is being sued by dozens of family members of inmates who say the corporation failed to provide adequate security in the prison. The families allege that the prison forces the young men to live in sub-standard conditions, where they are subject to excessive force from staff and are sexually preyed upon by other inmates and staff. One of the most startling stories to come from the families is that of 21-year-old Mike McIntosh II. A 2010 riot at the prison left McIntosh, a former athlete, so severely brain damaged that he struggles with short-term memory and has lost some function in his right leg and arm. If you think that the violence at Walnut Grove cannot be avoided because the institution is full of heinous, violent criminals, consider this: of the 1,200 young men incarcerated there, more than two-thirds are jailed for nonviolent offenses.
Only a thorough investigation will uncover exactly what’s going on at Walnut Grove but, based on the facts we have so far, it’s easy to see that the prison has failed to provide the staff needed to keep these young men safe. And, if they can’t keep them safe, they surely won’t be able to rehabilitate them. Many of those incarcerated don’t have a high school education: their job prospects and hope for the future were grim, so they turned to crime to escape poverty. If they aren’t given the tools they need while in prison, namely an education and counseling, they are more likely to return. These private contractors are making money by incarcerating young people, many of whom would be better served by being sentenced to intensive drug counseling and being properly educated. If the government can’t handle the challenge managing prisons presents, it needs to set guidelines that hold private management firms accountable for the inmate’s safety and their rehabilitation.
(Judge Greg Mathis is vice president of Rainbow PUSH and a national board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.)