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Jailing Kids for Cash

As many as 5,000 children in Pennsylvania have been found guilty, and up to 2,000 of them jailed, by two corrupt judges who received kickbacks from the builders and owners of private prison facilities that benefited. The two judges pleaded guilty in a stunning case of greed and corruption that is still unfolding. Judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan received $2.6 million in kickbacks while imprisoning children who often had no access to a lawyer. The case offers an extraordinary glimpse into the shameful private prison industry that is flourishing in the United States.

Take the story of Jamie Quinn. When she was 14 years old, she was imprisoned for almost a year. Jamie, now 18, described the incident that led to her incarceration:

"I got into an argument with one of my friends. And all that happened was just a basic fight. She slapped me in the face, and I did the same thing back. There [were] no marks, no witnesses, nothing. It was just her word against my word."

Jamie was placed in one of the two controversial facilities, PA Child Care, then bounced around to several other locations. The 11-month imprisonment had a devastating impact on her. She told me: "People looked at me different when I came out, thought I was a bad person, because I was gone for so long. My family started splitting up ... because I was away and got locked up. I'm still struggling in school, because the schooling system in facilities like these places [are] just horrible."

She began cutting herself, blaming medication that she was forced to take: "I was never depressed, I was never put on meds before. I went there, and they just started putting meds on me, and I didn't even know what they were. They said if I didn't take them, I wasn't following my program." She was hospitalized three times.

Jamie Quinn is just one of thousands that these two corrupt judges locked up. The Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center got involved when Hillary Transue was sent away for three months for posting a Web site parodying the assistant principal at her school. Hillary clearly marked the Web page as a joke. The assistant principal didn't find it funny, apparently, and Hillary faced the notoriously harsh Judge Ciavarella.

As Bob Schwartz of the Juvenile Law Center told me: "Hillary had, unknown to her, signed a paper, her mother had signed a paper, giving up her right to a lawyer. That made the 90-second hearing that she had in front of Judge Ciavarella pretty much of a kangaroo court." The JLC found that in half of the juvenile cases in Luzerne County, defendants had waived their right to an attorney. Judge Ciavarella repeatedly ignored recommendations for leniency from both prosecutors and probation officers. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard the JLC's case, then the FBI began an investigation, which resulted in the two judges entering guilty-plea agreements last week for tax evasion and wire fraud.

They are expected to serve seven years in federal prison. Two separate class-action lawsuits have been filed on behalf of the imprisoned children.

This scandal involves just one county in the U.S., and one relatively small private prison company. According to The Sentencing Project, "the United States is the world's leader in incarceration with 2.1 million people currently in the nation's prisons or jails-a 500 percent increase over the past thirty years." The Wall Street Journal reports that "[p]rison companies are preparing for a wave of new business as the economic downturn makes it increasingly difficult for federal and state government officials to build and operate their own jails." For-profit prison companies like the Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut) are positioned for increased profits. It is still not clear what impact the just-signed stimulus bill will have on the private prison industry (for example, the bill contains $800 million for prison construction, yet billions for school construction were cut out).

Congress is considering legislation to improve juvenile justice policy, legislation the American Civil Liberties Union says is "built on the clear evidence that community-based programs can be far more successful at preventing youth crime than the discredited policies of excessive incarceration."

Our children need education and opportunity, not incarceration. Let the kids of Luzerne County imprisoned for profit by corrupt judges teach us a lesson. As young Jamie Quinn said of her 11-month imprisonment, "It just makes me really question other authority figures and people that we're supposed to look up to and trust."

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

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