Portfolio Prisons

By Shapiro, Bruce | The Nation, October 20, 1997 | Go to article overview

Portfolio Prisons


Shapiro, Bruce, The Nation


For most of us, it's good news that crime is down and the prison population growing more slowly. So why, at a recent conference in New York City, did Professor Charles Thomas bemoan this "moderation of the increase" in the legions of the incarcerated?

Thomas, who runs the Private Corrections Project at the University of Florida, is the Dr. Strangelove of the for-profit prison business; his audience consisted of penitentiary privateers whose stocks rise with the incarceration rate. They were invited by the Reason Foundation to the Second Annual Privatizing Corrections Conference. Despite the bad news on the statistical front, Thomas (a paid board member of Corrections Corporation of America Realty Trust) set a confident tone in his keynote address: "The market remains quite positive." That's an understatement: Wall Street and government are head over heels about privatized corrections. The nine top-performing private-prison stocks have soared in value an average of 36.89 percent since January 1. Private companies now guard upward of 85,000 inmates around the country; industry insiders are confident of 250,000 within five years. Tennessee, where the movement was born fifteen years ago as an alternative to Governor Lamar Alexander's mismanagement of the state's prisons, is considering whether to turn its entire corrections operation over to corporate hands. The prison privateers have gone global: Even South Africa has sought private prison bids.

It was chilling to hear crime and punishment discussed in the language of silicon futures, without reference to inmates, victims or guards. "Our market analysis shows that despite recent reports of decline, juvenile crime will continue to rise and demand for beds will remain solid," declared Securicor New Century C.E.O. Diane McClure in a technocratic monotone. These companies are canny about the politics that help them grow: "Reduced entitlements will result in increased referrals" to prisons, McClure said.

Like a lot of people, I become queasy at the thought of prison managers loyal to a corporate board instead of public officials accountable, however imperfectly, to the Constitution. I raised this with George Zoley, C.E.O. of Wackenhut Corrections Corp., which just won a $300 million contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to run Taft Correctional Facility in California. "I think you should consider the feelings of prisoners themselves," he replied mildly, claiming that surveys show prisoners prefer responsible corporate management; then he joked that instead of school vouchers the country needs prison vouchers, letting inmates themselves choose their housing. …

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