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Private prisons: specter of slavery?

Empty jails await out-of-state inmates


The wind blew cold, and the 30-odd folks crowded onto the shadowy steps of the state Capitol huddled together as they sang.

"And they sent me down South, to the old Vann Plantation ... to make some men rich from the trouble I'm in. And if you say that ain't slavery, you're a goddamn liar."

Ministers, civil rights activists and union representatives gathered Dec. 5 to demand an end to the business of for-profit prisons. Private prisons are a chance for the state to save big money by avoiding the bureaucracy, union-scale wages and jurisdictional constraints that, according to privatization advocates, make state-run prisons more costly.

In Georgia, where the inmate population totals 44,323, it costs about $47 a day to house an adult prisoner in a traditional state-run prison; the Corrections Corporation of America, which operates two of Georgia's three private prisons, says it does the job for $45.38 per inmate. The three private prisons here currently house some 4,500 inmates; two more sit vacant, awaiting new customers. These prisons-for-hire also offer sorely needed income, in the form of construction projects and jobs, to depressed rural areas.

To the Rev. Timothy McDonald of Atlanta's Concerned Black Clergy, they represent something else.

"To profit off of the misery of human beings," says McDonald, "is a sin before God almighty!" Of added concern to McDonald are the plans for the two vacant prisons. Unlike Georgia's other private prisons, these two were built on "spec," without any agreement from Georgia officials to provide inmates.

Now, their owner, Nashville-based CCA -- the country's largest private prison company -- is working on a deal to import prisoners from Hawaii to fill a completed 1,500-bed prison in Telfair County, south of Macon; Hawaii officials and CCA have yet to iron out a deal. The company also is bidding for bodies from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which needs to house illegal immigrants. Telfair officials are anxious for the facility -- with its accompanying 400-450 jobs -- to crank up, and are helping lobby for the inmates.

Construction on the second prison, in Stewart County, has been halted indefinitely, says CCA spokeswoman Susan Hart, until the outlook for filling it is more favorable.

While some private prisons elsewhere house out-of-state inmates, CCA's push to import prisoners to Georgia has fueled local criticism. Pointing to a troubled history of some other CCA facilities, critics say escapes, violence and murders in Texas and Ohio demonstrate that CCA can't be trusted to safeguard nearby communities. CCA, which has admitted to past problems, says it's beefed up security and addressed those concerns.

Last year, a Georgia report compiled from government monitor records cited CCA's prisons for unmanned security posts, inadequate medical staffing and easy inmate access to drugs and to tools that can be used as weapons. Earlier this year, state officials pointed to that report in delaying approval of CCA's request to expand capacity here; that permission has since been granted.

Of the 2 million Americans in jail, 46 percent are African-American and 18 percent are Hispanic. Activists say the "prison industrial complex" is now engaged in a campaign to manufacture, ship and store an all-too-familiar commodity: people.

"We cannot be silent while anybody in America thinks they can make a profit off of young, poor black men," McDonald says.

CCA's Hart says that it's up to lawmakers to decide the propriety of for-profit jails. CCA, she says, is simply in the business of providing safe, cost-effective housing for inmates, under strict government scrutiny.

"We're not in the public policy business," she says. "Virtually everything in our institutions is run exactly as they are in our governmental customer institutions." Discounting charges that private prisons skimp on things like training or inmate care, Hart says that CCA personnel are trained as well as -- if not better than -- their counterparts in state-run institutions.

"It is our management style and the lack of bureaucracy, and our economy that produces the cost savings."

Critics are also troubled that privatization will spur industry lobbyists to support draconian laws to boost inmate rolls. Those concerns are not unfounded: In California, where a ballot resolution passed this year calling for alternative sentencing for non-violent drug offenders, the opposition was spearheaded by an independent prison guards' association which saw it as a threat to their livelihoods.

But in Georgia, activists are hoping that the added clout of labor unions will help rein in the industry, and plan to lobby the General Assembly in January.

"Georgia doesn't need any more prisons, and certainly not just so somebody can make more money," says Richard Ray, president of the Georgia AFL-CIO. "We need more trade schools, more training, more programs to keep people out of the jailhouse."

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