Surrendering the Prison Keys

Kentucky just spent $92 million building a 961-bed correctional facility in Elliott County. Touted as a vehicle for economic development, the prison promises several hundred jobs for the sluggish economy of eastern Kentucky, plus a multiplier effect throughout the region for vendors and local shop owners.

But, Kentucky now faces a growing budget deficit, so some state administrators are suggesting a market approach to handle the prison. They favor contracting with a private prison corporation to run Elliott County's Little Sandy Correctional Complex.

A few counties southwest of Elliott County the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) operates the medium-security Lee Adjustment Center near Beattyville. On September 14, 2004, nine prisoners instigated a riot involving 200 other inmates that resulted in setting fire to the administration building and one of the three housing units. Although no one suffered serious injury in the four-hour uprising, the incident raised concerns about the management and practices of private prison corporations.

The Lee facility was originally designed for 500 inmates, but CCA built another 256-bed unit then moved 60 additional bunks into the existing dorms, giving the facility a capacity of 816. Since a for-profit prison corporation makes money by filling the beds, CCA contracted with Vermont to house some of its prisoners. At the time of the riot the Lee facility housed 803 inmates, 376 from Kentucky and 427 from Vermont.

Concurrently, inmate free time in the yard was reduced and visits from family and friends got cut to two hours a week. Vermont inmates, whose visitors travel 1,000 miles to Kentucky, complained. Additionally, some inmates alleged abuse by the frequent use of isolation without justification.

Inmate advocates allege this combination of crowding, cuts in privileges and the influx of inmates from out of state created an explosive situation. CCA denies the allegations, but an investigation into the riot continues to sift through various facets of prison life to determine what caused the violence.

Arguing that private corporations manage resources more efficiently, proponents of private prisons cite the cost savings to the state. Whereas Kentucky spends approximately $48.41 per day per inmate for security, medical care, shelter and food within its own correctional system, at the Lee Adjustment Center it pays CCA just $38.44.

The lower operating costs of private prisons, critics counter, come from diminishing prisoner services, cutting employee wages and benefits and reducing the number of employees. When CCA expanded the population at the Lee facility by 300 inmates, for example, it increased its staff from 165 to 211, but the ratio of staff to inmates diminished by nearly a fourth.

From a faith perspective, ethical and moral considerations go beyond the numbers. The US bishops in their 2000 statement on criminal justice, “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration,” wrote: “The profit motive may lead to reduced efforts to change behaviors, treat substance abuse and offer skills necessary for reintegration into the community.” More recently the Catholic Bishops of the South in their 2003 pastoral statement, “Wardens from Wall Street: Prison Privatization,” call for an end to all for-profit private prisons. Foremost among their concerns are issues of human dignity: “When prisoners become units from which profit is derived, there is a tendency to see them as commodities rather than as children of God.”

People of faith continue to speak against the efficiency of private prisons that reduces rehabilitative services for inmates, promotes crowding in prisons and cuts wages and training for correctional officers. After all, Matthew 25 reads, “I was in prison and you visited me” not “abused me.”

Fr. Rausch is a Glenmary priest who lives, writes and organizes in Appalachia.

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

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