Prisoners suffer when prisons profit

Millennial Reflections
By Father Jeremy Tobin, OPraem
On Friday, March 20, Governor Phil Bryant’s Task Force on Prison Procurement held a hearing at the Woolfolk Building in Jackson. Among its members was Constance Slaughter Harvey, the first African-American woman to get a law degree from Ole Miss. She is a member of Forest St. Michael Parish.
She filed the suit against the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) demanding reform at Parchman in July 1971, when it was notorious for inhumane conditions. She sees the same conditions at Walnut Grove. Since the hearing at the Woolfolk Building she visited Walnut Grove and said, “The conditions have changed but there remains a long way to go to humanize this institution.”
The Chris Epps scandal, in which former prison commissioner Chris Epps admitted to benefitting from a wide-ranging bribery scheme, caused a group of concerned clergy, across denominational lines to come together as Clergy for Prison Reform (CPR). The recent column by Rev. C. J. Rhodes, representing CPR and Bishop Joseph Kopacz’ column stating the Catholic bishops position around private for profit prisons, and the full page piece in the following issue of Mississippi Catholic by editor Maureen Smith, tell us that this is a “front burner issue.”
The issue of private for profit prisons making money and dividends for shareholders from the misfortune of a segment of the population is being contested. To make a profit these companies sign agreements with state and federal governments to efficiently run prisons, and save the governing entities money, with the promise to fill 90 percent or better bed space. Further, these companies have powerful state and national lobbies pushing for new laws that create more crimes in order to lock up more people in their prisons. The private prison lobby is behind the harshest anti-immigrant legislation being pushed in several state houses.
We, of CPR, say that this is immoral.
Private prisons are run on the cheap. Their goal is profit, period. This puts staff and inmates at serious risk. Any way they can cut corners, they do. Insufficient, or no programs, poor quality of food, low pay for staff and long hours are recipes for corruption, unrest and rioting.
MDOC is seeking to terminate the consent decree to reform Walnut Grove. I represented CPR during the hearings before Judge Carleton Reeves on April 1-2. A senior vice-president of MTC, Management and Training Corp, the Utah based company that runs Walnut Grove and East Mississippi Correctional Facility, Marjorie Brown, when asked by SPLC attorney Jody Owens if she has stock in MTC, replied “Yes.” When further asked if more inmates are housed do her dividends go up based on increased profit, she agreed.
As the testimony proceeded, Brown, with more than 30 years in corrections, still maintained that Walnut Grove could safely handle an increased population, despite their number going down to 900 plus as a result of two major riots in less than a year. From a pure profit driven business sense her reply is expected, despite the egregious mismanagement that now involves the court.
These hearings illustrate all that is bad with private for profit prisons. Reduction in crime is bad for business. Conditions in these prisons create a black market for contraband of every kind. Steve Martin, the court appointed monitor at Walnut Grove said, “It can take years to institutionalize the systemic changes needed to show long term success.”
Those of us who oppose private for profit prisons on moral grounds say this is a systemic evil impacting the poor and marginalized on several levels. To list a few: legislation to invent more crimes, anti-immigrant legislation that targets and discriminates largely Hispanics, targeting and over-policing in African-American communities, and the mass incarceration of black men, that creates a “new Jim Crow.”
The number of disenfranchised ex-offenders are rivaling conditions from years past. If 40 percent of a community are disenfranchised ex-offenders, that is 40 percent of a community unable to exercise the right to vote. For profit prisons make money out of poverty and discrimination.
(Father Jeremy Tobin, O.Praem, lives at the Priory of St. Moses the Black, Jackson.)