private prisons

  • October 14, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Sheila Bedi, Clinical Associate Professor of Law, Northwestern University School of Law; attorney, Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, Northwestern University School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic

    Prisons and jails are a revolving door of brutality where people held behind bars experience horrific abuse funded by taxpayers and meted out at the hands of the state. My practice is dedicated almost exclusively toworking with and for men, women and children who live behind bars, and most of the cases I’ve filed have to do with prison and jail conditions.

    The facts of some of my cases speak for themselves. A juvenile prison in Mississippi was notorious for subjecting the young women there to sexual abuse, and in the wake of a particularly horrific incident during which correctional officers sexually abused girls who were then left shackled together for over a month, the prison was permanently closed. In downstate Illinois, a young man whose only offense was a first-time drug possession endured over 12 hours of brutal rape. He joined the over 200,000 people who survive sexual abuse in our nation’s prisons. Another case involved a private prison company that raked in over $100 million in profits while subjecting men to abusive conditions. There, some prison staff exploited the youth by selling drugs inside the facility, and youths who were handcuffed and defenseless were kicked, punched and beaten. Other youths were stripped naked and held in isolation for weeks at a time. Young men with serious health needs languished without medical care, sometimes risking death or permanent injury. A federal court found that these conditions resulted in “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts . . . The sum of these actions and inactions . . . paints a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.”

    My work is about transforming—and hopefully dismantling—the criminal injustice system and enforcing the constitutional rights of people who live in the shadows. The challenge is to help the courts understand and reckon with the humanity of the 2.2 million men, women and children this country holds behinds bars. One of the ways that happens is when lawyers recognize the agency, courage and resilience of their clients. I am humbled and often awestruck by the courage of my clients, and the fact that they are willing to trust me with the truth of what they endure behind bars is an incredible privilege. Most of my cases are class actions seeking only injunctive relief. That means my clients aren’t getting any money from being involved in this work and instead put themselves at great risk of retaliation by speaking up and telling their stories to the court, all to ensure that others are protected from the abuses they endure.

  • March 9, 2012

    by Joseph Jerome

    After the Supreme Court barred inmates in for-profit private prisons from lodging federal lawsuits alleging constitutional violations against individual corporate employees, the costs and purported benefits of our increasing reliance on private prisons warrant careful consideration.  

    As one local report by the Monmouth County, N.J., Correctional Facility Evaluation Task Force concluded, the legal implications alone question the appeal of private prisons. However, rather than look at the greater legal or policy ramifications of prison privatization, public officials are too quick to embrace private prisons, assuming they will save their states money. 

    For example, Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) recently pushed for the largest private prison plan in the nation with the argument that it was “an opportunity to save money.” Republicans and Democrats in the state senate, however, joined together to defeat the measure. The legislators were dismayed that private prisons already operating in Florida actually cost more money than their state-run counterparts. “They need to start acting like any business in the private sector would and stop using imaginary numbers,” Senator Paula Dockery (R-Lakeland) complained.

    So are private prisons cheaper than state-run alternatives? According to a report last fall by the ACLU, evidence of cost-savings is “mixed at best.” While Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group tout the cost-savings of their prisons, many studies by localities, states, and the General Accounting Office have questioned the veracity of such claims. 

    Even if it can be proven that private prisons save money, the larger concern is whether these savings truly come from productivity innovations only the private sector can provide or from cutting corners on safety, security, and rehabilitation. Adequately overseeing the inner-workings of our prisons is often a challenge, but the issue becomes especially salient with respect to private prisons.