In Connecticut’s booming prison economy there are winners and losers. Inmates face financial ruin and state taxpayers lose too — about $31,419 per year, per inmate. Prison entrepreneurs, for whom each inmate is a government subsidized business opportunity, are the big winners.
Growing nationally by 3.4 percent a year for the past 10 years, federal, state and local prisons hold about 2.3 million inmates — one half of whom are nonviolent and small-time drug law offenders. In 2006, prison populations went up in 41 states, including a 2.53 percent increase in Connecticut from 2005.
Connecticut taxpayers pay $1.69 million per day to house the state’s 19,649 inmates. That’s nearly $12 million a week, or more than $641 million annually, and that number is rising, keeping the prison market hot. Here is how that money is used to exploit the losers and enrich the winners.
Public Jobs. Of the 720,000 corrections employees in the United States in 2007, nearly 7,000 worked in Connecticut. That means for every three new inmates locked up in Connecticut, about one new corrections job follows. That is good news for job seekers but bad news for the three inmates who actually create each new job.
Private Profiteers. A new book, “Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration,” by Tara Herivel and Paul Wright, tells how the prison gravy train actually works. In addition to supplying food, clothing and medical care, private companies profit in other, less visible, ways.
Here we learn from a University of Michigan professor how telephone companies and prisons in Connecticut charge extra high rates for collect calls from inmates. Once MCI, Sprint and others began competing with the Baby Bells and AT&T, end-user rates for collect calls from prisons went up, as was the case in the non-prison market. Exclusive phone service agreements went to firms offering price-gouging rates and large payments to operators of prisons. In the 1990s, 90 percent of the nation’s correctional systems received a percentage of these telephone profits. By 2000, the share ranged from 44 percent to 60 percent.
Prisoners have a great need to rely on collect calls, especially to stay in touch with their families. What excuse is there for price-gouging these families?
Nationally, more than 85,000 inmates are held in private, for-profit, facilities. To sell their services in state capitals, we learn in another chapter that “Corporations with a stake in the expansion of private prisons invested $3.3 million in candidates for state office and state political parties in 44 states over the 2002-04 election cycle.”
On top of that, these companies support the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential behind-the-scenes interest group working with state legislators to pass tougher sentencing laws that will increase prison populations.
Liberty for Sale. According to a recent New York Times article, bail bondsmen occupy a unique, for-profit niche in the American justice system. In all states except Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon and Wisconsin, to avoid going directly to jail an accused person must pay a bondsman a non-refundable fee — often 10 percent of the bond — even if he or she appears for all court proceedings. In some states the bondsman is even permitted to hunt down and capture a client who fails to appear in court, breaking into homes without a warrant if necessary.
What to do? What can be done to end this tax-subsidized prison gravy train? First, the laws and policies made in Hartford must stop filling state prisons with nonviolent drug users who should be in drug treatment facilities, not prisons. Second, the lawmakers must stop passing ever-longer, one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum sentences that only tie the hands of courtroom judges and needlessly fill our prisons.
Until then, prison profiteers will continue to exploit both Connecticut inmates and its citizens in whose name the state prisons are built and operated.