How many deaths will it take to end for-profit prisons?

Martin Acosta, a Salvadoran imprisoned at a private contract prison in Reeves, Tex., for his illegal re-entry into the United States, complained of abdominal pain in the summer of 2010. In 20 visits to the infirmary he had seen a doctor only once. By the time he saw one in December, he could no longer eat. In the hospital they found a massive tumor in his abdomen. He died in January.

Jesus Enrique Zavala Montes, 28, serving five months for illegal entry, arrived at Taft prison in California with a record of attempted suicide. He was sent to solitary confinement for “protective custody,” awaiting a psychiatrist, who did not come. He hanged himself. These stories, recounted in Seth Freed Wessler’s “Separate, Unequal, and Deadly” (The Nation, 2/15), are about only two of the 137 immigrants who died in 11 for-profit prisons between 1998 and 2014. These prisons, which are distinct from immigration detention centers, were built as more undocumented immigrants were charged with serious crimes, mostly drug-related. They now house approximately 23,000 people.


Federal rules for government-run prisons require educational programs, addiction treatment, health care and rehabilitative services. When a retired doctor volunteered at a contract prison, he discovered that to raise profits they skimped on services, kept sloppy records, failed to provide doctors or well-trained nurses and refused his requests to transfer patients to hospitals that might save them.

The problems with for-profit prisons are well documented—a lack of oversight, a commitment to shareholders rather than the public good. In “Wardens From Wall Street: Prison Privatization” (2000), the Catholic Bishops of the South called for “the end of all for-profit prisons.” How many deaths will it take for us to see the wisdom of their recommendation?

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Mike Evans
2 years 10 months ago
And so, we exonerate all the local, state and federally operated prisons and jails which abrogate prisoner rights and subject them to cruel and harsh treatment? The issue is not who owns and operates the prisons. The real issue is the public attitude that admires punishment, solitary confinement, overlord guards, chastisement, deprivation of all dignity, and violence among inmates. A total and complete overhaul of our justice and penal systems is absolutely required. A good place to start would be the models currently in use by Scandinavian countries with primary emphasis on re-integration of law violaters safely back into the local community. Redemption, not isolation and punishment.
Bill Stewart
2 years 9 months ago
"For profit" is not the root of the problem. Every organization has financial performance goals, even America, even the Jesuits, even your local church. The problem is a lack of oversight generally with privatization of services by public entities, in many cases resulting from poorly designed contracts and a tendency of public agencies to consider their responsibility is transferred to the private operator once the ink is dry. Lots of privatization programs work extremely well - think of food and facility services at schools and colleges, business cafeterias, hospital management and administration, local refuse services, etc. Almost anything can operate successfully and as a "win-win" as long as privatization is executed via a well-crafted contract that has meaningful operating parameters and provisions for effective program oversight and administration. And a public agency that does not have the "problem solved" approach and look the other way until it's too late. Blaming "for profit" here is like blaming a writer for a stupid or error-filled article when the editor gave no instructions and performed no review before publication.
Lisa Weber
2 years 9 months ago
The problem with a for-profit prison is that they have an incentive to raise the price of their services and make sure that a supply of prisoners continues. All of this is counted as part of the gross national product. Prisons are a societal cost and should remain government entities so that we always have incentive to keep the prison population as low as possible.


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