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Private Prisons Line Pockets, but at What Cost?

On August 18, 2016, then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates issued a memorandum with the subject line “Reducing our use of Private Prisons.”

Yates pointed out that the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had contracted with privately operated facilities about a decade ago in an effort to curtail the burden of a prison population that had increased faster than the Bureau could handle. By 2013, the Bureau was housing about 15 percent of the prison population, or about 30,000 inmates, in private prisons.

Between 2013 and 2016, the memo states, the federal prison population dropped from approximately 220,000 to fewer than 195,000 inmates. She credits this to “several significant efforts to recalibrate federal sentencing policy, including the retroactive application of revised drug sentencing guidelines, new charging policies for low level, non-violent drug offenders, and the [Obama] Administration’s ongoing clemency initiative.”

Citing “real and positive results,” Yates pointed out that private prisons served an important role during a difficult time, but proved to “compare poorly” to BOP facilities. She stated that private prisons don’t provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources, don’t offer substantial cost savings, and, as noted in a report by the department’s Office of Inspector General, don’t maintain the same level of safety and security.

That statement hit some big corporations right in the pocketbook. Henri Wedell was on the board of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which operates 60 private prisons, and his shares in the company made him millions. Then there is George Zoley, CEO of GEO Group, America’s second-largest private prison investor firm, whose over 500,000 shares in GEO made him a millionaire many times over. Those are just two of the many people who profit from the private prison model.

Big-time investors aside, surely the humble American citizen doesn’t buy into this model? Actually, many do – and they don’t even know it. The Vanguard Group and Fidelity Investments are huge investors in CCA and GEO, meaning that Americans who invest with these financial behemoths are profiting off private prisons as well.

So what’s the problem with making money?

The problem is that prisons should be about rehabilitation and getting inmates back into society, while a private corporation is about making money. When it’s all about making money, everything from the food the prisoners eat to their activities and facility upkeep gets scrutinized – and where pennies can be pinched, they most certainly are. The books show a profit, but prisoners suffer with less food, low to no programming, poor infrastructure, and even inadequate security.

Yates’s memo predictably was welcome in some circles, but a bone of contention in others.

Then, along came Trump.

Trump was not originally a politician. He was – and is – a businessman. His platform included positioning himself as “the savior of corporate America,” and he made good on his promises to promote big business – including private prisons.

On Feb. 21, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo of his own: “I hereby rescind the memorandum ‘Reducing our Use of Private Prisons’…I direct the Bureau to return to its previous approach.”

Unsurprisingly, GEO stock surged that same month, right alongside other private prison stocks.

In America, you can make a lot of money. You can put a businessman in charge of the country to ensure that you keep making that money. You can go from penniless to a multi-millionaire. Turns out some just aren’t too choosy about how they get there.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington PostNew York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.

About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis, a writer currently incarcerated at FCC Petersburg (Medium), is an impassioned and active prison education advocate, a legal commentator, and a prolific writer of books, book reviews, and prison law articles. While living in federal prison at various security levels, retaliations for his activism have earned him long stretches in solitary, or "the hole." While in prison, he has earned numerous academic, legal, and ministerial credentials. Christopher is very knowledgeable about prison-related legal issues, prison policy, federal regulations, and case law. He is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014) and thePrison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). The Federal Prison Handbook is an IndieReader Discovery Awards winner. A regularly featured contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Prison Legal News, the nation's most prominent prison law publication, Christopher has enjoyed significant media exposure through appearances with the Wall Street Journal's Market Watch, Vice.com, Salon.com, In These Times, The Jeff McArthur Show, The Simi Sara Show,TheCommentary.ca, 88.9 WERS' award-winning "You Are Here" radio segment, and The Examiner. Other articles and book reviews appeared in The New York Journal of Books, the Kansas City Star, The Sacramento Bee, Blog Critics, Midwest Book Review, Basil and Spice, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, AND Magazine, Truth-Out.org, Rain Taxi, and the Education Behind Bars Newsletter, with content syndicated by the Associated Press, Google News, and Yahoo News. He established three websites: PrisonEducation.com, PrisonerResource.com, and ChristopherZoukis.com, and was a former editor of the Education Behind Bars Newsletter. In 2011, his fiction won two PEN American Center Prison Writing Awards for a screenplay and a short story. He taught a popular course on writing and publishing to over 100 fellow prisoners. Today Christopher is successfully working on a Bachelor's Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies (Business/Law) from Adams State University. Following his 2016 graduation, he plans on attending Adams State University's MBA program. He regularly advises fellow prisoners and prison consultants about legal issues and federal regulations governing the Federal Bureau of Prisons operations. Upon release he plans to attend law school and become a federal criminal defense attorney. Christopher will not allow incarceration to waste his years or halt the progress of his life. He began his prison terms as a confused kid who made poor decisions but is today determined to create a better life. "We can't let the past define us," he says. "We have to do something today to make tomorrow what we want it to be."

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