Nonprofit and faith-based organizations have asked governors to avoid working with one of the largest prison corporations due to clauses the for-profit company is demanding.
"Prisons are a public trust, not a means for a small group to make a lot of money," said Bill Mefford, director of civil and human rights for the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church.
A coalition of some two dozen nonprofit organizations sent a letter to state governors on March 1 recommending the states refuse to work with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
The governors also received a letter signed by more than 30 faith-based organizations.
CCA is a for-profit corporation with 44 prisons and detention centers in the United States. They currently house approximately 75,000 inmates, including immigration detainees and state and federal inmates.
Harley Lappin, former director of the federal Bureau of Prisons and now the chief corrections officer for CCA, also sent a letter to state governors.
Lappin indicated that CCA has set aside $250 million to purchase prisons in various states – provided the governors would agree to some stipulations.
The two most troubling stipulations, according to the organizations asking governors not to sign contracts, were provisions for a mandatory 20-year contract and a guarantee that the facilities would be kept at 90 percent capacity at all times.
Among the organizations signing the faith-based letter was the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) of the United Methodist Church (UMC).
Bill Mefford, director of civil and human rights for the GBCS, said the UMC became involved because private prisons represent a serious challenge to social justice.
"This was a theological position of the board," Mefford said. "Because this is about social justice, it's also theological. Prisons are a public trust, not a means for a small group to make a lot of money."
Mefford said their position was based on the idea that biblical justice is about healing and restoration.
"Agreeing to a 20-year contract and a 90 percent capacity demand only means that alternative sentencing would no longer be possible," he said. "Alternative sentences are for nonviolent offenders, and they are given so that the offenders can serve their sentence in ways that are good for the offenders' families and communities."
The letters to governors also contained a practical appeal based on economics.
"While a prison sale might provide a short-term infusion of revenue," read the letter from nonprofits, "taxpayers in your state would be left paying for this short-term windfall until at least 2032. In short, this proposal to sell a valuable state asset is a backdoor invitation for your state to take on additional debt while increasing CCA's profits."
The two main corporations that run private prisons and detention centers in the United States are CCA and the GEO Group. Both have said they are simply providing a needed service due to prison overcrowding.
Additionally, they claim they are able to save money for governments and taxpayers by implementing business models.
The Justice Policy Institute released a report in June 2011, "Gaming the System," in which the institute attempted to verify CCA's and the GEO Group's claims that they were able to reduce costs and recidivism.
"With conflicting research on both the cost savings and recidivism reduction of private prisons, additional research is needed to determine the accuracy of such claims," the report said.
More troubling was a statement in one of CCA's annual reports about sentencing reform and profitability.
"The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws," read CCA's 2010 annual report. "For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them."
The relationship of business to government matters, an Arkansas judge pointed out.
"People who believe that governments ought to be run like businesses know nothing about business or government," said Wendell Griffen, an appeals court judge for the state of Arkansas.
Griffen said that some public services, by their nature, ought not be privatized.
"Security, including policing and incarceration, are basic, essential government functions. These are not services to be outsourced because the fundamental ethics of government and business are different," said Griffen, who is also an ordained Baptist minister and a member of the board of the Baptist Center for Ethics. "For government, it is to provide a service; for business, the goal is to increase profits."
Griffen said that locking states into contracts that required mandatory capacity rates only created a conflict of interest for government officials who would feel pressured to impose more draconian sentencing methods.
Griffen also worried about the oversight of such programs.
"Can you imagine if Blackwater had been in charge of Abu Ghraib or if they ran Gitmo?" asked Griffen, referring to the controversial private military contractor used by various U.S. federal agencies overseas.
"We can't get the Department of Defense to admit to abuses as it is. Imagine how much more difficult it would be to get a private organization to admit to abuses. The government will not do oversight well on this."
Private prisons also create a zone of irresponsibility where prisoner rights are concerned, especially the right to sue due to abuse or negligence.
"The government is going to want to be immune on this," Griffen said, "but the corporations are going to want to be indemnified against liability. We'll be left with a situation where no one is responsible if something goes wrong."
Greg Horton is a freelance writer and adjunct professor of philosophy and humanities. He lives in Oklahoma City.