(MintPress) – It has been dubbed the “Kids for Cash” scandal – two judges profiting upwards of $2.6 million for sentencing children to particular private juvenile detention centers. Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan of the Court of Common Pleas in Pennsylvania pleaded guilty to a trade agreement of an estimated 6,000 children where between 1,000 and 2,000 received excess sentences that outweighed their crime. The violations have since exposed a private prison system that is growing its reach by contracting out to strengthen its power as a for-profit model that is seeing prison populations grow to an extent not seen anywhere else in the world.
The companies involved, PA Childcare and Western PA Childcare, received a stipend from the government for each inmate housed. This created a situation where the detention centers looked for ways to bring more inmates into increase revenue. According to the Juvenile Law Center, a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, the judges sentenced teenagers to the two facilities for simple misdemeanor offenses.
Most of those sentenced by Ciavarella and Conahan were denied the Constitutional right to an attorney because their probation service told them their misdemeanor crimes did not warrant one. When the judges began pushing for particular facilities to house the inmates in, one courthouse worker told the New York Times that many had suspected a partnership.
“Everyone began to assume that the judges had some vested interest in the private center because they were pushing it so doggedly,” the courthouse worker said.
In a letter to the court, Ciavarella wrote, “Your statement that I have disgraced my judgeship is true. My actions have destroyed everything I worked to accomplish and I have only myself to blame.”
In the United States today, private companies operate 264 correctional facilities that house nearly 100,000 adult convicts. In a time when approximately 13 million Americans find themselves in a jail during any given year, six million of those end up in “correctional supervision,” more than in Joseph Stalin’s gulags. With that adding up to one in every 100 Americans being incarcerated, public prisons are running over capacity.
At the end of 2009, 19 states were operating at 100 percent or more of their highest capacity measure and the federal prison system was operating at 140 percent of capacity. All of this has happened despite violent crime rates falling in the US. However, the nation’s incarceration rate has tripled since 1980.
In response, private corporations such as Corrections Corp of America (CCA) and GEO Group used their purchase power to capitalize on the overflow and overcrowding issues public prisons began to have. Now, the two groups are the largest private prison operators in the United States, generating $70 billion.
An inside job?
Thus far, the instance in Pennsylvania is the only prosecuted case of judge corruption and partnership with a private prison firm in the US. But the influence of for-profit correctional centers extends beyond those who uphold the law to those who write the laws as well. In Arizona, the idea of a private prison to house illegal immigrants wooed lawmakers and corporations alike. Then-state senator, Russell Pearce (R), crafted the bill not with other lawmakers, but with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a membership organization of legislators and corporations.
One of the group’s prominent members is the CCA, the main organization that was providing compensation to Ciavarella and Conahan for assigning juveniles to its facilities.
Recently, ALEC made headlines after leaked files showed the group secretly voted on 800 “model” bills. Critics claimed it demonstrated that corporations and not citizens have the voting power in America today.
“These bills and resolutions reach into almost every area of American life: worker and consumer rights, education, the rights of Americans injured or killed by corporations, taxes, health care, immigration, and the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink,” according to ‘ALEC Exposed,’ a site devoted to publishing the leaked bills. “Only by seeing the depth and breadth and language of the bills can one fully understand the power and sweep of corporate influence behind the scenes on bills affecting the rights and future of every American in every single state.”
National Public Radio (NPR) reported that Pearce and the CCA had been attending ALEC meetings for years prior to their pitch for a private prison to house illegal immigrants. Michael Hough, staff director of the meeting for ALEC, said meetings to write legislation should be a combination effort between private and public officials.
“That’s the way it’s set up. It’s a public-private partnership. We believe both sides, businesses and lawmakers should be at the same table, together,” Hough said.
When the bill hit the floor of Arizona’s legislature, a number of co-sponsors expressed their support, and two-thirds of them either went to the ALEC meeting where the legislation was proposed or were already ALEC members. The bill sailed through the voting process and was signed by Arizona governor Jan Brewer. Two of Brewer’s top advisers are former lobbyists for private prison companies.
Attempts to halt growth
Across the US, a number of states have attempted to reduce populations and force operational guidelines on private prisons; some have even called for a complete ban on private correctional facilities altogether.
Three states in America have instituted bans on private prisons while two other states have banned the exportation and importation of prisoners to or from private facilities. Illinois, New York and Louisiana have all banned private prisons in the state while North Dakota and Oregon outlawed the movement of prisoners to or from public correctional facilities to private ones.
A particular criticism of private prisons in the US is that they are run as cheaply as possible and the living conditions are not standardized like their public counterparts, so prisoners could potentially be living in conditions that are cruel and inhumane. Author Adam Gopnik wrote about the prison system in America for The New Yorker that outlined how little the state and prison spends on inmates.
“[A] growing number of American prisons are now contracted out as for-profit businesses to for-profit companies. The companies are paid by the state, and their profit depends on spending as little as possible on the prisoners and the prisons,” Gopnik wrote. “It’s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible.”
Some states have responded by requiring private prisons to house inmates at the same standard seen in public prisons. New Mexico and Oklahoma both have laws that set some form of a standard on private institutions. New Mexico has the state Secretary of Corrections supervise private facilities while Oklahoma has a law in place that requires private prisons to have an emergency response system in place and a requirement to notify the state of any safety incidents. Nebraska’s legislation to regulate the standards of private prisons sailed through voting, but was pocket-vetoed by the governor.
Attorney and author John Whitehead wrote that the expansion of the private prison system in America is costly for society in that it puts profits before rehabilitation.
“In this way, minor criminals, from drug users to petty thieves, are being handed over to corporations for lengthy prison sentences which do nothing to protect society or prevent recidivism,” Whitehead wrote. “This is the culmination of an inverted justice system which has come to characterize the United States, a justice system based upon increasing the power and wealth of the corporate-state.”