How to Starve the For-Profit Prison Beast

I know some private prison lobbyists who would love it if you were found with a cell phone. Assuming, of course, that you're already locked in one of the prisons their clients operate in Oklahoma.

Introducing a cell phone into a correctional facility used to be a misdemeanor in Oklahoma. Now, it's a felony. This change did not happen for any reason other than a private prison lobbyist provided his client with a good way to make even more revenue off of people already imprisoned. Bumping this crime up from a misdemeanor to a felony means that when a person is caught with a cell phone in prison, he or she will end up staying in prison even longer; in most cases the new sentence will be added to the end of the existing one, instead of allowing people to serve time for both the crime that landed them behind bars and the cell phone infraction simultaneously. More prison time, more profits.

Does it matter that this policy has zero public safety value, as cell phones were already considered contraband behind bars? Not to a private prison company. When a lobbyist approached me on the statehouse steps and said he was pushing for enhanced punishment for having a cell phone in prison, I responded by stating this simply was not smart, evidence-based policy. I haven't seen proof that this type of enhancement, where you convert a misdemeanor to a felony, deters crime. I asked the Governor not to sign the bill, but – after concerted lobbying from the private prison company – he signed it anyway.

And sadly, folks, that is how criminal justice policy gets made. This change in the law was never motivated by a sincere interest in reducing the number of cell phones in correctional facilities. That was just a front. This change was motivated by increasing private prison companies' profit margins.

You can show me any section of the criminal code, and I can tell you the anecdote that put that policy in place. Laws rarely make their way to the books because of research, data analysis or evidence-based best practices. Instead individual financial greed – and not the public interest – is all too often the driving force behind criminal justice policy.

I know. I saw firsthand how illogical criminal justice policies are created as the Director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

Here's how the scheme works: Private prisons create demand for their services much like drug dealers ensure that their customers are addicted, but not so addicted that they die. These companies inject their lobbying dollars and campaign contributions into the political world, contributing to a climate in which no one can be reelected by appearing soft on crime. The result is a machine that passes laws to ensure more and more people flow into prisons, regardless of whether society actually is made better by having these people behind bars.

The bottom line is that private prisons' current business plans simply cannot coexist with meaningful evidence-based sentencing reform. If we want a fair and smart system, we have to cut these dangerous pushers out of the deal entirely.

We need to replace profit-seeking policies with proven, evidence-based ways to end mass incarceration while keeping our communities safe.  Here are just a few of the changes we could make right now to pave a path toward a smart and fair criminal justice system:

  • Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences.
  • Transfer severely and/or chronically mentally ill prisoners to state agencies responsible for mental health treatment.
  • Prohibit "lock-up quota" contracts with private prison companies, in which the jurisdiction promises to send enough prisoners to a private facility to meet a "lock-up quota" or pay the company for falling short of the quota.
  • Make probation a real possibility for people convicted of non-violent crimes.

CEO profits and shareholder returns have no place in our criminal justice system. Cutting the profit motive out will mean a return on public investment that actually reduces future victimization, breaks intergenerational cycles of incarceration, and reduces pathways to prison.

It's time we valued people and our communities over profits.

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Anonymous

Absolutely right! Until every state ensures that all practices are evidence based, we will continue to over incarcerate our citizens!

Anonymous

Isn't this written by the guy that got fired for lying about how much money he had in his own slush fund?

Alice Parker

I believe that it should be a crime to profit from the incarceration of other human beings. Such good points made in this article!

Anonymous

Absolutely!! The entire criminal "justice" system is flawed. Prosecutors over indict in order to force a guilty plea on something. Judges max out sentences for first time offenders with a low risk of recidivism. Probation/parole officers manufacture reasons to return people to prison. There is no common sense nor justice. It is simply fill up the prisons so we can whine for more money to staff them and then build more. America is in decline. We lock people up instead of getting them into the work force.

Anonymous

Hahahahaha. Says the guy that bankrupt OKDOC

Anonymsous to

This is so true and I am Republican....and sustaining a cycle recidivism at society expense where more crime occurs and prison corporations make money off it...disease and sickne$$

Anonymous

their "lobby" money was tax payer money that has been wasted and used to buy your government out from under you

Anonymous

their "lobby" money, really tax payer money that has been wasted

Anonymous

My guess is that the politicians in the D.C. City State will allow private, and state prisons for profit as long as they remain investors of this particular scheme; taking away the ability for politicians to invest, and this issue, as well as others, will be corrected.

Anonymous

#5 Anonymous.... You should get your facts straight. Justin Jones didn't bankrupt OKDOC, please look straight over to NE 23rd and Lincoln Blvd. This legislature (ie.. Mary Fallon and her greedy posse) is the reason for it.
Bankers looking to increase their coffers and campaign contributions to "help" make sure their beds(private prisons to include Halfway Houses for profit) are full. Justin Jones led OKDOC and kept them solvent during the worst economic times this state has seen. This article is spot on and now OKDOC is being led around by a money grubbing woman who doesn't care anything about the common Oklahoman. Shame on you and shame on Mary Fallon, the worst Governor this state has every know.

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