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Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009

Prisons for Profit

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One of the most shocking revelations of recent weeks was that two judges in Pennsylvania potentially destroyed the lives and futures of thousands of juveniles by incarcerating them for minor offenses in exchange for millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks from a private prison company.

Even more shocking is that some officials in Wisconsin, including Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, advocate private prisons for profit in our own state, which could open the door to the same kind of corruption and human destruction here.

The truly evil plot in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., began in 2002 when Senior Judge Michael Conahan and Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. conspired to shut down a county-run detention center and incarcerate juveniles instead in two privately operated juvenile prisons.

From then on, it was incarcerate, baby, incarcerate. Ciavarella’s juvenile court oper ated like a conveyor belt. Young people were brought before him without an attorney, given hearings usually lasting only a minute or two and summarily sentenced to months in juvenile prison.

Beginning in in Milwaukee 2003, Ciavarella incarcerated more than 5,000 juveniles, many of them first offenders charged with minor crimes.

Those who accuse the criminal justice system of incarcerating poor, minority defendants to create profits for the prison industrial complex got all the evidence they needed to confirm their worst suspicions.

Conahan and Ciavarella pleaded guilty in federal court to wire fraud and income tax fraud for taking more than $2.6 million in kickbacks from a private prison company for keeping its facilities filled.

As eye-popping as the money was, it was trivial compared to the untold damage to children’s lives. Anyone familiar with criminal justice knows once a young person gets caught up in the system, he or she may never get out. Incarceration destroys opportunities for education and employment that can affect young people for the rest of their lives. Cutting off opportunities for legitimate employment feeds crime and threatens community safety.

Incarceration, the most expensive punishment, should be reserved for those who are truly dangerous and need to be separated from society to protect us all. For other offenders, reclaiming lives through drug treatment, education and job training is far cheaper and makes the community safer.

Private prisons have absolutely no financial interest in rehabilitation. In fact, recidivism increases the value of their stock. The more people they can incarcerate again and again, the higher their profits. Despite being discredited by the experience in Pennsylvania, private prisons, outlawed in Wisconsin, recently picked up a powerful new advocate in Milwaukee County.

Clarke on the Attack

Whenever Sheriff David Clarke drops out of the headlines for a while, all he has to do is pen one of his provocative public essays promoting some right-wing cause. As one of the few African-American politicians to be warmly embraced by conservative talk radio, Clarke knows all the right buttons to push, frequently attacking other black public officials.

Clarke outdid himself when he attacked state Sen. Lena Taylor for suggesting the multibillion-dollar state budget deficit should finally push the Department of Corrections to reduce Wisconsin’s over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders to pursue cheaper and more effective alternatives.

Clarke advocated building even more prisons in Wisconsin using funds from President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus program intended to create jobs.

But because Clarke thinks everybody in government is incompetent but him, he doesn’t think the state should run all those prisons he dreams about building. “My suggestion,” Clarke wrote, “is for the state Legislature to enact real reform by repealing the prohibition on operating private prisons in Wisconsin. … Government never does anything more efficiently and effectively than the private sector. It’s why people rely on FedEx and UPS instead of the U.S. Postal Service to have a package delivered.”

Even ignoring Clarke’s comparing of human beings to junk mail, there is something bizarre about a Milwaukee politician advocating prisons as a jobs program. Incarceration is a major barrier to employment in urban areas.

Milwaukee leaders long have suspected that rural legislators promote incarceration simply to provide jobs for small-town whites guarding big-city blacks.

Wisconsin incarcerates a higher percentage of its African-American population than any other state in the union, according to The Sentencing Project, a national research organization. Although blacks form only 6% of the state population, they’re almost 50% of the state’s prison population.

What makes Clarke’s ideas truly dangerous is that he has just been given expanded authority over all of Milwaukee County’s incarceration facilities. Clarke, an African- American who has a good job, thinks a great jobs program for unemployed blacks would be building more prisons to put themselves in.

Clarke sees human beings in conflict with the law as a source of big profits for private companies, just as two corrupt judges in Pennsylvania did.

What’s your take?

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