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PLN managing editor's editorial on private prison bill in Michigan, Jan. 1, 2013.
PLN managing editor's editorial on private prison bill in Michigan - 2013

Human rights advocate: Incarceration should not be contracted to the lowest bidder (Guest column)

By Dave Murray |
on February 15, 2013 at 7:32 AM, updated February 15, 2013 at 7:37 AM

Alex Friedmann is a national expert on prison privatization and the managing editor of Prison Legal News, a project of the Human Rights Defense Center.

He also serves as president of the Private Corrections Institute, a non-profit citizen watchdog organization that informs policy makers and the public about the dangers of privately-operated prisons.

A former prisoner, he was released in 1999 after serving 10 years in both public and privately-operated facilities, and has since testified at a Congressional subcommittee hearing on private prison-related legislation and authored three book chapters concerning prison privatization.

Friedmann is responding to a Feb. 13 guest column about a recent law regarding private prison ownership in Michigan.

By Alex Friedmann

Guest columnist Gary Wolfram on Feb. 13 lauded state legislators for passing a bill that will allow a prison in Baldwin owned by the GEO Group, a private company, to house Michigan prisoners – or offenders from other jurisdictions who are “imported” into the state, though he neglected to mention the latter provision.

In fact, professor Wolfram, in extolling the virtues of prison privatization, neglected to mention a number of things.

He wrote that most private prisons are accredited by the American Correctional Association. But he didn’t say that the ACA, a private group that sets its own standards, basically sells accreditations by charging thousands of dollars in accreditation fees, or that private prison firms – including GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America – are sponsors of the ACA’s biannual conferences.

Prof. Wolfram cites a review by the Reason Public Policy Institute in support of cost savings through prison privatization. But he neglects to mention that Reason receives funding from private prison firms. Indeed, a list of Reason’s 2009 supporters includes GEO Group as a Platinum-level supporter and CCA as a Gold-level supporter.

Similarly, while Prof. Wolfram references research by Vanderbilt University that found budgetary benefits through prison privatization, he fails to identify the funders of that research: CCA and the Association of Private Correctional and Treatment Organizations – an industry group composed of companies that profit from providing corrections-related services.

As for citing a 2009 survey by Avondale Partners, an investment banking firm, Avondale previously issued a favorable market rating for CCA and hosted a private prison conference in 2010 that included presentations by the CEOs of both GEO Group and CCA plus a speaker from Reason.

Nor did professor Wolfram discuss the thousands of dollars in political contributions that GEO Group and its employees gave to Michigan lawmakers from 2010 to 2012, leading up to the recently-passed legislation that will let GEO reopen its Baldwin facility.

Wolfram stated in his column, “Those who oppose private prisons will use a variety of misleading pieces of information to make their points....” Rather, it seems those in favor of private prisons are misleading, as he has repeatedly demonstrated.

Depriving citizens of their liberty through incarceration is an inherently governmental function that should not be contracted out to the lowest private-sector bidder for the purpose of generating corporate profit. “Liberty” is one of the three fundamental rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, and prison privatization is therefore fundamentally different from the privatization of other government functions.

Consider that public prisons are operated by public officials with the goal of ensuring public safety, and are accountable to members of the public.

Private prisons are operated by for-profit companies with the goal of generating profit, and are accountable to their shareholders and corporate executives.

Wolfram did not indicate whether has ever climbed down from his ivory tower of academia and set foot in a prison, whether publicly or privately operated. Should he do so, his opinion on whether incarceration should be privatized may very well change.