Commentary

06.17.16

Orange is the New Black Tackles Prisons For Profit

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Orange is the New Black – the binge-worthy, Peabody Award Winning, Netflix series – returns with Season 4 on June 17. Last season, the fictional Litchfield Correctional Facility faced closing its doors due to lack of funding and is soon after taken over by a private prison corporation.

Why is it important that Hollywood is picking up on prison privatization?

While Orange is the New Black may not fully capture the plethora of problems with private prisons (prisons run by for-profit companies), it sheds a light on an issue most people don’t know about in our criminal justice system. Increasing public awareness is crucial because prison privatization isn’t confined to the word of fiction, nor to the federal prison system. In fact, Ohio has been on the frontlines of prison privatization since the 90’s.

Between 2000 and 2010, the number of prisoners serving sentences in private prisons doubled. Private prisons are notorious for creating a more dangerous environment for both staff and prisoners. Generally, private prisons are less effective, cut basic services such as medical care, and see increased assaults, higher staff turnover, and unacceptable conditions. Some states are beginning to terminate their contracts with private prisons companies due to these concerns. For example, Idaho terminated their contract with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) for running a prison which was nick-named “Gladiator School” because there was so much violence.

Private Prisons Feed Mass Incarceration

But one doesn’t need to look past our own state to see the severe problems with private prisons. Ohio’s prison system is over 130% capacity. We are currently housing over 50,000 people in a system built to hold 38,000. As of June 2016, about 9% of our prisoners are in prisons that are privately owned or managed.

To private prison companies, every inmate is a dollar sign, every empty bed is money out the window.

There are simply too many people in prison who would be better served through community treatment or other programs. Yet, Ohio’s prisons are bursting at the seams, and we turned to privatization as a way to save some money for our cash-strapped state. Unfortunately, the financial savings from prison privatization is often fuzzy, and it creates a perverse incentive to keep our prison system full. To private prison companies, every inmate is a dollar sign, every empty bed is money out the window.

Prison Privatization is a Failed Experiment

Ohio was the first and remains the only state in the nation to actually sell a prison to a private company. We made history on January 1, 2012, when CCA took control of the Lake Erie Correctional Institution (LaECI) in Conneaut, Ohio. The first 18 months under CCA control were disastrous. Drug use was rampant throughout the facility, contraband was being tossed over the perimeter fence, violence increased, and medical care deteriorated.

To make matters worse, CCA had negotiated a provision into its contract so they would be paid for 90-percent capacity, regardless of it those beds were filled. Then, CCA added 300 new beds in the prison. The problems at LaECI hurt the local community, the staff, and the prisoners, but the incentive behind private prisons continues to hurt our state. CCA and other private prison companies spend millions of dollars lobbying against criminal justice reform efforts – including in Ohio.

Piper Kerman, author and subject of Orange is the New Black, uses her prison experience to advocate for criminal justice reform. Read about Piper Kerman’s talk at the ACLU of Ohio’s 2015 Likover Memorial Lecture.

Ohio Hasn’t Learned Its Lesson

Unfortunately, Ohio is continuing with its failed experiment on prison privatization. Last summer, in a legislative sleight of hand, our lawmakers slipped the sale of the North Central Correctional Institution in Marion, Ohio, into an unrelated bill just before summer recess. This was passed it without any chance for testimony, public discussion, or media coverage.

Simply put – Ohio is continuing down the wrong path.

So next week, when you’re binge watching new episodes of Orange is the New Black, think about the ways prisons for profit hurt our communities and how you can help stop it. It is time to call for an end to prisons for profit.

Learn more about prison privatization and watch the ACLU of Ohio’s award-winning documentary, Prisons For Profit.

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