With 2.3 Million People Incarcerated in the US, Prisons Are Big Business
“Global Tel* Link. You have a collect call from: ‘Tim.’ An inmate in Shelby County Correctional Facility…. If you wish to accept and pay for this call, dial zero now.”
I don’t know how many times I heard the same robotic voice speak these words since last fall. I was researching the story of Timothy McKinney, a Memphis man facing his third death-penalty trial for the killing of an off-duty police officer in 1997. Tim would call from Shelby County Jail, to answer my questions and to do what anyone facing trial would want to do: air concerns about his case, vent. Sometimes he would call multiple times a week. Because the phone calls were limited to fifteen minutes at a time, a couple of times he hung up and called right back, so we could keep talking.
The calls were expensive, more than a dollar per minute, depending on the time of day. In order to accept one, I had to set up a prepaid account with Global Tel* Link, or GTL, “The Next Generation of Correctional Technology.” If Tim called and my account was out of money, the automated voice would prompt me to replenish it via credit card, while he waited on the other line. “By accepting an inmate call, you acknowledge and agree that your conversation may be monitored and recorded,” the company advises.
I dealt with Global Tel* Link for only a few months. But for Tim’s relatives, this had been their reality for years. GTL makes more than $500 million a year exploiting families like his, who face the choice between paying exorbitant phone rates to keep in touch with incarcerated loved ones—up to $1.13 per minute—or simply giving up on regular phone calls. Like many other telecommunications companies that enjoy profitable monopolies on prison and jail contracts across the country, GTL wins its contracts by offering a kickback—or “commission”—to the prison or jail systems it serves. As an exhaustive 2011 study in Prison Legal News explained, the kickback is “based on a percentage of the gross revenue generated by prisoners’ phone calls…. [The] commissions dwarf all other considerations and are a controlling factor when awarding prison phone contracts.”
The higher a kickback, in other words, the more likely a company is to win the contract. These high kickbacks translate into higher phone rates for family members—usually the very people who can least afford it. Like the vast majority of those who pass through the massive jail and court complex known as 201 Poplar in downtown Memphis, Tim’s family was not wealthy. When it came time for his trial last spring, his mother would be in court every day, only to leave straight for her night job, cleaning office buildings.
Global Tel* Link is one of five companies profiled in a new video series called “Prison Profiteers,” a collaboration between Beyond Bars—a Brave New Films project—the ACLU, and The Nation. With 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, prisons are big business; the goal of the series is to expose the myriad ways people enrich themselves off crime and punishment. Defenders of for-profit prison services pitch them as superior, efficient, money-saving options for cash-strapped states and localities that can ill-afford the costs of mass incarceration. (And indeed, historically, state-run services have often proven abysmal in themselves.) But not only do such privatized services often end up more expensive in reality, they can incur huge unseen costs to inmates and their families.
Watch the first video in the Prison Profiteers series from Beyond Bars, on telecommunications company Global Tel* Link, and check back here each Tuesday for new videos.
Worse still are the implications on a larger scale: when corporations seek to profit from prisons, it creates a powerful financial incentive, not just to push for policies that fuel mass incarceration but to cut corners in the services they’ve been hired to provide. Society shows little concern for prisoners who might receive substandard food, phone service or healthcare behind bars, after all. In the prison equation, the real consumer is the state, whose own financial priorities often run counter to the needs of prisoners and their families.
The cost for families is not just financial. The Global Tel* Link video features 9-year-old Kenny Davis at his home in Nashville, Tennessee. Kenny’s father is housed in a private prison four hours from where they live. “Phone calls are a problem,” Kenny’s mother says, “because they cost too much.” So Kenny rarely talks to his father. Ideally, he says, he would talk to him once a week.
Some 2.7 million children have parents who are incarcerated. Preventing them from having regular contact with their moms and dads isn’t just bad for these kids. All the evidence shows that prisoners who maintain close family ties fare better upon release. Making it harder for prisoners to stay connected with their families is not only needlessly punitive and cruel, it is unwise from a public safety standpoint.
But, for all their rhetoric to the contrary, prison profiteers are not as concerned with public safety as they are with the bottom line.
“They Have No Protocol for Treating Anybody With Hepatitis C”
The human cost of prison profiteering is especially pronounced and disturbing in the video about Corizon, the largest prison healthcare company in the country. In it, we meet a Tucson woman named Eleanor Grant, who receives a phone call from her partner, Thomas, incarcerated since 1994. Thomas suffers from an enlarged prostate, among other problems, and the prison medical staff will not give him the medication he needs to cope. “I’m in constant pain,” he tells Eleanor, sounding like a frail old man. Pain registers in her eyes, too, as she listens. “I can’t even sit now,” he says. “They just ignore it.”
Medical neglect runs rampant in prisons across the country, a largely invisible problem that has few in positions of power scrambling for a meaningful solution. The problem is not unique to states that have outsourced their prison healthcare: In California, the crisis of overcrowding in state facilities, merged with catastrophically inadequate state-provided care, was the basis for a 2011 Supreme Court decision ordering the state to release tens of thousands of prisoners. In September, the state paid $585,000 to a man who lost an eye while locked up on a parole violation in 2008. He had repeatedly requested medication for his glaucoma, but was ignored. Eventually, his cornea burst.
But in those states that have turned to private companies to provide medical care to prisoners, stories of neglect and abuse also abound. In 2005, The New York Times published a shocking investigation into Prison Health Services, a company responsible for two prisoner deaths in separate jails in upstate New York within two months of one another. In both cases, the inmates had been repeatedly denied medication and accused of faking their distress. The Times also told the story of 46-year-old Diane Nelson, who died of a heart attack in a Florida jail. “Stop the theatrics,” a Prison Health nurse snapped at her as she collapsed. “That same nurse, in a deposition, also admitted that she had joked to the jail staff, ‘We save money because we skip the ambulance and bring them right to the morgue.’”
In a 2003 piece for Harper’s, Wil S. Hylton profiled Correctional Medical Services, the company that in 2011 merged with Prison Health Services to create Corizon. Hylton’s piece exposed staggering levels of malpractice at CMS, which he described as “not merely the nation’s largest provider of prison medicine,” but “also the nation’s cheapest provider, a perfect convergence of big business and low budgets.”
At the center of Hylton’s report was the company’s alarming protocol when it came to Hepatitis C, a virus that destroys the liver, and which is particuarly prevalent among prisoners. “As a matter of formal company policy, CMS discourages treatment for hepatitis,” he wrote, citing an internal memo from a medical director explicitly ordering doctors to deny treatment as a general rule. Hylton spoke to nurses who expressed shame at their own complicity in the system. “It was absolutely appalling, to the point that I can’t even tell you,” one woman told him. “You knew that as long as you worked there, you did not challenge any of it. But your disgust builds as the horrible cases build…. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re sick and you get into one of these places, you might as well be signing your death certificate.”
Ten years after Hylton’s expose, CMS is now Corizon, and the same policy exists. The Prison Profiteers video on Corizon features Frankie Barton, another Tucson woman, whose son is sick with Hepatitis C. “My son’s being told they have no protocol for treating anybody with Hepatitis C,” she says.
The result could be deadly. Last year alone, no fewer than seven sick prisoners died at Metro Corrections, a jail in Louisville, Kentucky, while on Corizon’s watch. The company made headlines when six employees quit their jobs, according to local press, “amid an investigation by the jail that found that the workers ‘may’ have contributed” to two of the deaths. This summer, it was announced that the contract between Corizon and the city would not be renewed.
In 2009, CMS CEO Rich Hallworth boasted a salary of nearly a million dollars, according to Forbes. Today, his company, Corizon, makes nearly $1.5 billion a year ostensibly treating inmates in some twenty-nine states.
No phenomenon is more emblematic of prison profiteering than the rise of private prisons. By now it is perhaps the most familiar and troubling trend for many progressives, and with good reason: the financial incentives involved are obvious and egregious. “It’s like the hotel industry,” says Alex Friedmann, an editor at Prison Legal News, who himself was once incarcerated at a private prison. “The hotel industry wants to keep their beds full as much as possible, because it means more revenue. Same thing for the private prison companies.” Two separate videos look at the two major private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the country’s largest operator of private prisons, and GEO Group. Both companies made headlines in September upon the release of a report by In the Public Interest that scrutinized the “occupancy requirements” commonly found in private prison contracts. Last year, CCA sent letters to forty-eight governors, offering to take their prison systems off state hands in exchange for a guarantee that their states would keep their facilities up to ninety percent full—regardless of crime rates.
In addition to its lobbying for harsh sentencing—in particular when it comes to immigration enforcement, which funnels a growing number of people into its facilities—CCA and Geo Group have become notorious for providing substandard and sometimes harrowing living conditions to their prisoners.
“It was disgusting,” says former ACLU attorney Will Harrell, about one GEO Group facility he inspected in Coke County, Texas. “There was an infestation of insects everywhere you looked, including the kitchen. Insects in the food. It was horrible.” Another interview subject, Donald Weeks, who spent ten months locked up at GEO-run East Mississippi Correctional Facility, described intolerable sewage problems. “The stench was so bad in there, I couldn’t eat anymore.”
At the heart of the problem is an utter lack of transparency. Facilities run by private prison corporations are not subjected to the same oversight as state and federal prisons. As Alex Friedmann has pointed out, “the private prison industry operates in secrecy while being funded almost entirely with public taxpayer money.” In September Bloomberg reported that “the federal government provided almost 43 percent of [CCA’s] $1.76 billion of revenue in 2012, according to its annual report.”
Private prisons have inspired activism across the country. In May, activists descended upon Nashville to protest CCA’s shareholder’s meeting and thirtieth anniversary celebration. To coincide with the demonstration, Friedman released a list he compiled of deaths in CCA custody, “the most vivid testament to the fact that thirty years of imprisoning people for money is nothing to celebrate.” In addition to a long list of prisoners, it included prison staff—as well as three babies who were born to mothers in CCA custody.
The protests came months after a coalition of thirty-five organizations called on Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee to reintroduce the Private Prison Information Act, legislation first introduced in 2005, which would require CCA and Geo Group—indeed, anyone with a federal prison contract—to “make the same information available to the public that Federal prisons and correctional facilities are required to make available.”
Fight the Prison Profiteers
Years of activism against prison profiteering has paid off. In August the FCC took a major step in the right direction by announcing a rate cap on long-distance calls made by inmates. It was a hard-fought victory, albeit a limited one. For Kenny Davis who lives in the same state where his father is incarcerated, high phone rates remain a barrier to keeping in touch.
Want to learn more about the wide range of exploitative practices that come from mass incarceration? Start by visiting the Prison Profiteers action page. From the companies mentioned above to relatively recent innovations such as privatized bail bonds, to such age-old practices as civil asset forfeiture, the videos covering some of the worst ways people and politicians have found to prey upon the misery of others. As Brave New Foundation’s Jesse Lava explains, “The Prison Profiteers series illustrates how greed has become a major driver of mass incarceration—and how the system is more vast than most citizens imagine.”
More valuable still, it is a public education campaign that invites us to do something about it. “For-profit companies are making billions by exploiting our mass incarceration crisis,” said Vanita Gupta, director of the ACLU’s Center for Justice. “Over the next six weeks, we’ll be attacking their bottom lines. These companies need to know we’re watching.”
© 2013 The Nation