When corporate profits, conservative tea party values, and corporate political influence intersect, the result is one of the scariest human rights developments within the borders of the United States. Charles Davis, guest blogger at Salon.com recently authored a downright Orwellian piece detailing Wells Fargo’s involvement in the Private Prison Industrial Complex. Wells Fargo, fresh from receiving tens of billions in taxpayer funds has increased its stake in private “private correctional and detention management” behemoth GEO Group. The Florida company, which according to reports filed with the SEC that I uncovered, administers and owns 65 prisons in 34 states across the United States.
As recently as 2011 the company was found to have negligently caused the death of at least one inmate. On June 22, 2011, a jury verdict for $6.5 million was returned against GEO in a wrongful death action brought by the Personal Representative of the Estate of Ronald Sites, a former inmate at GEO’s Lawton Oklahoma Correctional Facility. On August 22, 2011, the court entered judgment against GEO in the amount of $8.4 million. GEO has routinely been accused of using excessive force against inmates, subjecting inmates to substandard health care or refusing care altogether, and creating an environment of indifference to sexual abuse.
Due to recent state budget shortfalls, private prisons have become an attractive and cheap alternative to state run prisons staffed with union employees and the accompanying pensions and health care costs. Preceding the recession, GEO had aggressively lobbied state and federal representatives in an effort to grow its business. GEO and other private detention facilities operate in states with Democratic majorities as well as Republican majorities, and have been awarded lucrative federal contracts from the Bureau of Prisons under both Democratic and Republican administrations. This is not a partisan issue, but rather an issue of money and influence.
Prisons in the United States are often forgotten places where the general public would just as soon not know what takes place or how inmates are treated. The cold hard fact remains that we as a society have taken upon ourselves the responsibility of administering criminal laws and determining when a human being shall have his or her freedom taken away by the government. No matter how terrible or innocuous an individual crime may be, we must together ensure that punishment and rehabilitation be administered in such a way as to remain consistent with our underlying principles. We lost our way in extraordinary fashion following the attacks of September 11, 2001, legalizing torture and privatizing some of the most important functions of government, but we must not allow the mistakes of the military, the FBI and CIA to become the norm within our domestic prisons. We can not contract away our responsibility to safeguard human rights. As such we bear the responsibility of requiring that prison facilities function as professional facilities under an agreed upon set of rules. We must ensure proper access to the courts should the rules be violated. Corporate lobbying power must not overcome the responsibility of state and federal legislators to ensure that our prisons are free from lawless chaos and penny-pinching, whether it be inmate on inmate crime, officer on inmate crime, or institutionalized corporate crime. Saving a dollar is not worth losing our collective soul.