Pubdate: Sun, 30 Mar 2008
Source: Palm Beach Post, The (FL)
Copyright: 2008 The Palm Beach Post
Note: Does not publish letters from writers outside area
Author: Ronald Fraser, Special to The Post
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

Growing nationally by 3.4 percent a year for the past 10 years,
federal, state and local prisons hold 2.3 million inmates - half of
whom are nonviolent and small-time drug-law offenders. In 2006, prison
populations went up in 41 states, including Florida where, in recent
years the state prison population has grown 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
U.S. 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 titled,
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 non-prison 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 already are 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. The 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 the citizens in whose name the state prisons are built and
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake