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How to Starve the For-Profit Prison Beast

Blog author, Justin Jones
Blog author, Justin Jones
Justin Jones,
Former Director,
Oklahoma Department of Corrections
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April 24, 2014

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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