Opinion

Incarceration across state lines

Sending prisoners out of state impedes rehabilitation, rewards profiteers

February 12, 2014 11:00AM ET
Inmates at Chino State Prison in California walk past their bunk beds in a gymnasium that was modified to house prisoners.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The United States is the prison capital of the world. Despite a recent decline in its inmate population, the U.S. houses roughly a quarter of the world’s prisoners. The majority live in cramped, shameful squalor that have raised the specter of human-rights violations.

In their efforts to curb prison overcrowding, some states are sending inmates to private out-of-state prisons hundreds or even thousands of miles away. However, this strategy has only made the prison crisis worse.

Take California. For more than a decade, its correctional facilities operated at 200 percent capacity, until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that doing so violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Nearly three years later, California’s prisons remain overcrowded. On Monday a panel of three federal judges granted a two-year extension for the state to reduce its prison population by roughly 6,000 inmates.

To resolve this problem, California has shipped its prisoners across state lines since 2006. Today the state has inmates in private prisons in Arizona, Oklahoma and Mississippi.

California is not alone. Vermont, Idaho and Hawaii have also embraced such measures, and other states may soon follow suit. West Virginia, for example, is poised to approve an out-of-state transfer that could affect hundreds of inmates.

In total, more than 10,500 prisoners are being held in private out-of-state facilities, as far as 3,000 miles from home. Most of them did not have a say in the matter. They were simply uprooted without their consent, at the fiat of the state. The consequences for them are severe.

Higher recidivism rates

The most immediate impact of this draconian policy is that it severs prisoners’ ties to families and local communities. Studies and courts have repeatedly found that visitation and community connections are pivotal to rehabilitation. Put simply, reclaiming one’s life requires support and understanding, not distance and isolation.

Outsourcing incarceration jeopardizes this process and increases the likelihood of recidivism. It also hurts families — the forgotten victims of America’s war on crime. Excessive criminalization has meant more single-parent households and more children whose parents languish in prison. Having to travel long distances to see loved ones only exacerbates this painful separation.

Just ask Danielle Rigney, who lives in Auburn, Calif. Her son, Solomon Rigney, was transferred to a private prison in Eloy, Ariz. “While he was in California, he was able to stay connected with us, watch his sisters grow, embrace hope for the future and continue to strengthen our family bond that will support his success, including never returning to prison,” Danielle Rigney wrote in a hardship letter to California officials. “So much time passes between our visits now, and I clearly and painfully see the change in him.”

Allegations of major human-rights violations, including prisoner abuse and deprivation of food and health care, are rampant among private prisons.

Because of her advocacy and persistence, Solomon Rigney was transferred back to California last month. Other prisoners, however, haven’t been so lucky.

Physical separation also impedes access to legal counsel. Indigent defense is already in a state of crisis nationwide: Public defenders often handle hundreds of cases at a time and thousands of cases every year. The beleaguered right to counsel, guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, needs to be renewed, not impaired.

Nor can phone calls fill the void. Although the Federal Communications Commission voted last August to cap the price of calls made from prison, talking to loved ones and counsel may still run 21 cents per minute (25 cents a minute for collect calls) — a ghastly rate for anyone, let alone inmates without income.

Private prison bonanza

By all accounts, the only group profiting from these transfers are private prisons. In the last three decades, the onetime niche business has grown into a multibillion dollar industry. Its growth has dovetailed with the war on crime. From 1970 to 2005, the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. grew by 700 percent. The private prison business seized the spoils. In 1983, the United States’ first private prison company, Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), was born, and ever since, the industry has boomed. In 1990, roughly 7,000 people were incarcerated in private prisons. By 2011, that number had ballooned to nearly 131,000. In 2012 alone, the two largest private prison contractors — CCA and the GEO Group — had combined revenue of $3.2 billion. Their business model rests on perverse incentives: the more people they incarcerate, the better their bottom line.

The private-prison experiment is failing. Allegations of major human-rights violations, including prisoner abuse and deprivation of food and health care, are rampant among private prisons. With out-of-state inmates, the potential for such transgressions is particularly acute, given the distance that separates the prisons from state regulators.

In fact, a report released in November by Grassroots Leadership, “Locked Up and Shipped Away: Interstate Prisoner Transfers and the Private Prison Industry,” found that private prisons in numerous states have committed a spate of violations against out-of-state inmates, including denial of adequate health care, failure to prevent gang violence, religious and cultural abuse and sexual assault. In one egregious case, CCA moved 168 Hawaiian female prisoners to Oklahoma, then to Colorado and finally to Kentucky, where they were sexually assaulted. Four CCA officials were later convicted of sexual abuse.

More recently, since Jan. 15 a CCA-run prison in Kentucky that houses Vermont residents has been on lockdown after the prison, understaffed and poorly supervised, failed to stop a surge in violence and assaults. West Virginia is considering this facility for its prisoner transfers.

America is facing a prison crisis that requires comprehensive reform. Rethinking the war on drugs, reducing mandatory-minimum sentences and imposing nonprison penalties for parole and probation violations are critical components of the solution. Shipping prisoners out of sight and mind is not.

Arjun Sethi is a lawyer in Washington, D.C., and a frequent commentator on civil rights and social-justice-related issues. He is on the board of directors of Grassroots Leadership.

Holly Kirby is a researcher and organizer with Grassroots Leadership. She prepared the report "€œLocked Up and Shipped Away: Interstate Prisoner Transfers and the Private Prison Industry."

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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