Keeping inmates close to families will keep our communities safer, and maintain the focus on corrections, not the warehousing of prisoners.
AS the Legislature was struggling to fund our state’s education system, the Washington State Department of Corrections was preparing to give upward of $60,000 per day to a private company to house state prisoners.
The GEO Group, a for-profit prison company, has contracted with the DOC to house 1,000 Washington inmates nearly 2,000 miles away in Michigan. Rather than outsourcing our state’s public-safety operations to a private company with a questionable track record, Washington should take steps to break the cycle of mass incarceration, saving precious tax dollars and making us all safer.
Shipping our inmates out of state is a bad idea that undermines efforts to rehabilitate people. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at least 95 percent of all state prisoners will eventually be released from custody. Studies have shown that the frequency of visits during incarceration and the ability to maintain ties to the community decrease the likelihood that offenders will return to prison after release.
The DOC has said that it will ship away those inmates with the fewest community ties and visitors, and yet these are the very people who are most in need of actual correctional service to ensure they successfully re-enter society. Keeping inmates close to their families and existing support systems would keep our communities safer, and maintain the focus on corrections, not the warehousing of prisoners.
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Outsourcing our prison system is a bad policy made worse when the contract is made with The GEO Group, a Florida corporation with nearly $2 billion in revenue in 2014 that touts itself as the world’s leading provider of correctional services. Such private prison companies are focused on making profits and may have an incentive to cut corners in providing services in pursuit of this goal. A recent study by a professor at the University of Wisconsin found that inmates in private prisons are likely to serve more time behind bars than those assigned to public prisons. And with private prisons paid on the basis of occupied beds, there may be a financial incentive for their operators to maximize the number of days served for each prisoner.
GEO has also faced litigation for its practices. For example, a government report found that GEO’s medical mismanagement at a California facility led to the death of an inmate in 2012, and the company paid a substantial amount in 2013 to settle a suit filed in connection with the sexual harassment of female inmates.
In Washington, GEO is best known for operating the Northwest Detention Center, an immigration-detention facility in Tacoma that has faced hunger strikes and legal action over its confinement conditions. A report from the Seattle University School of Law found that conditions at the facility did not comply with national detention standards concerning the treatment of immigration detainees.
Prison overcrowding could be far better addressed through sensible alternative approaches. These include: reforms aimed at reducing the number of people we send into the system, as well as reforms aimed at reducing the number of prisoners who are released and return to prison. Places like Texas and California have undertaken sentencing reform, treatment options for drug offenders, community-based alternatives to incarceration and are looking at reclassifying certain low-level felonies as misdemeanors. Studies have also shown that offender re-entry programs offering assistance with mental health, chemical dependency, education and employment help reintegrate prisoners into society and reduce the likelihood that they will return to prison.
No one is suggesting that we release dangerous inmates or allow Washington prisons to become so crowded that the safety of the public and correctional staff is put in jeopardy. Yet, ultimately, we are all made less safe by policies prioritizing imprisonment over addressing fundamental social issues that funnel people into prison.
At the moment, the only alternative to shipping prisoners out of state under consideration is building a new 700-bed prison near Centralia. But just as the state should not outsource its incarceration needs, neither can it build its way out of an over-dependence on incarceration. Instead, the Legislature should begin exploring the path toward reforms that could ease prison overcrowding, including potentially reclassifying certain crimes, providing more drug and mental-health services and incarceration alternatives that would balance community safety with rehabilitation.
As a publicly traded corporation, each year GEO is required to issue an annual report to its shareholders, listing “risk factors” that could negatively impact the company’s stock price. This year, the company warned investors that “competition for inmates” and “public resistance to privatization of correctional” services could adversely affect profitability.
Instead of Washington taxpayers being part of the “competition” for inmates, let us be part of the “resistance.”