Pubdate: Sun, 6 Apr 2008
Source: Tampa Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 2008 The Tribune Co.
Author: Ronald Fraser
Note: Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the 
DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


In Florida's booming prison economy, there are winners and losers. 
Inmates face financial ruin and state taxpayers lose too - about 
$17,000 per year, per inmate. Prison entrepreneurs, for whom each 
inmate is a government subsidized business opportunity, are the big winners.

Growing nationally by 3.4 percent a year for the past 10 years, 
federal, state and local prisons hold 2.3 million inmates - one half 
of whom are nonviolent and small-time drug offenders. In 2006 prison 
populations went up in 41 states, including 3,201 new inmates in 
Florida. From 2000-2005, the state's prison population grew at a 
steady 4.7 percent per year.

Florida's annual taxpayer contribution for state prisons, $2.5 
billion in 2005 and rising, keeps the prison market hot. Here is how 
that money is used to exploit the losers and enrich the winners:

Public Jobs. Of the 720,000 state and local corrections employees in 
the United States in 2005, 43,657 worked in Florida guarding 148,521 
inmates. That means for every four new inmates locked up in Florida, 
one new corrections job follows. That is good news for job seekers 
but bad news for the four inmates who actually create each new job.

Private Profiteers. A new book by Tara Herivel and Paul Wright, 
"Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration," tells 
how the prison gravy train actually works. In addition to supplying 
food, clothing and medical care, private companies profit in other 
less-visible ways.

Here we learn from a University of Michigan professor how telephone 
companies and prisons in Florida charge extra high rates for collect 
calls from inmates. Once MCI, Sprint and others began competing with 
the Baby Bells and AT&T, end-user rates for collect calls from 
prisons went up, not down, as was the case in the nonprison market. 
Exclusive phone service agreements went to firms offering 
price-gouging rates and large payments to operators of prisons. In 
the 1990s, 90 percent of the correctional systems nationwide received 
a percentage of these telephone profits and, by 2000, the share going 
to the prisons ranged from 44 percent in California to 60 percent in New York.

Prisoners, of all people in the country, have the greatest need to 
rely on collect calls, especially to stay in touch with their 
families. What excuse is there for price-gouging these families, many 
of whom are already suffering the loss of a breadwinner?

More than 6,285 prisoners in Florida and, nationally, more than 
85,000 inmates are held in private, for-profit facilities. To sell 
their services in state capitals, we learn in another chapter that 
"Corporations with a stake in the expansion of private prisons 
invested $3.3 million in candidates for state office and state 
political parties in 44 states over the 2002-04 election cycle."

On top of that, these companies support the American Legislative 
Exchange Council, an influential behind-the-scenes interest group 
working with state legislators to pass tougher sentencing laws that 
will increase prison populations.

Cheap Labor. While U.S. laws prohibit importing products made by 
prisoners in other countries, Gordon Lafer, a University of Oregon 
professor, reports that about 80,000 U.S. inmates work in 30 states 
where laws permit private firms to use convict labor. In Ohio, for 
example, a Honda supplier pays prison workers $2 per hour. These 
private firms do not pay for vacations, sick leave or overtime and 
workers can be dropped at will.

Liberty for Sale. According to a recent New York Times article, bail 
bondsmen occupy a unique, for-profit niche in the American justice 
system. In all states except Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon and 
Wisconsin, to avoid going directly to jail an accused person must pay 
a bondsman a nonrefundable fee - often 10 percent of the bond - even 
if he or she appears for all court proceedings. In some states the 
bondsman is even permitted to hunt down and capture a client who 
fails to appear in court, breaking into homes without a warrant if necessary.

What to do? What can be done to end this tax-subsidized prison gravy 
train? First, the laws and policies made in Tallahassee must stop 
filling state prisons with nonviolent drug users who should be in 
drug treatment facilities, not prisons. Second, the lawmakers must 
stop passing ever-longer, one-size-fits-all mandatory-minimum 
sentences that only tie the hands of courtroom judges and needlessly 
fill our prisons.

Until then, prison profiteers will continue to exploit both Florida 
inmates and its citizens in whose name the state prisons are built 
and operated.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake