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Prison bars
Freddie Allen, NNPA Senior Washington Correspondent
Published: 24 November 2014

A new report from criminal justice and human rights groups found that the “emerging ‘Treatment Industrial Complex’ has the potential to ensnare more individuals, under increased levels of supervision and surveillance, for increasing lengths of time—in some cases, for the rest of a person’s life.” (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – As cash-strapped state and local governments shift resources from incarceration to treatment for individuals convicted of low-level drug crimes, for-profit prison companies are following the money and potentially “undermining efforts to treat and rehabilitate prisoners,” according to a new report.

The report published by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Grassroots Leadership, and the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), groups that advocate for criminal justice reform and human rights, found that the “emerging ‘Treatment Industrial Complex’ has the potential to ensnare more individuals, under increased levels of supervision and surveillance, for increasing lengths of time—in some cases, for the rest of a person’s life.”

That’s because more than 90 percent of people serving time behind bars are eventually released, but individuals who receive care at mental health facilities or in community-based programs can continue to receive treatment indefinitely, “which spells long-term, guaranteed profits for private corporations,” according to the report.

According to the Sentencing Project, a research and education group that advocates for criminal justice reform, 1 in every 10 Black men in their 30s “is in prison or jail on any given day” and 1 in 3 Black men is likely to spend some time in jail or prison during their lifetime compared to 1 in 17 White men who will share the same fate.

A 2012 study conducted by researchers at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. found a correlation between the frequency of substance abuse disorders (SUDs) and the high incarceration rates of Black males.

The Justice Policy Institute reported that treating people struggling with SUDs was far less expensive in community-based programs, from $1,800 to $6,800 per participant, than treating them in prison where costs could exceed $24,000 per year to house them and more than $20 per day to treat them for SUDs.

Criminal justice advocates worry about the impact that private prison corporations will have on those rehabilitative efforts as for-profit companies evolve to take advantage of new sentencing reforms and potential markets created by those changes.

“While many sentencing reform efforts are geared toward keeping people out of the system and/or returning them to their communities as quickly as possible, the financial incentive for private prison corporations is to keep people in custody or under some form of supervision for as long as possible at the highest per diem rate possible in order to maximize profits,” the report said. “This creates the potential for a dangerous trend of “net widening” –  placing more people on stricter forms of supervision than is necessary, for longer than is warranted.”

The “Treatment Industrial Complex” study said that Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections Corporation), two companies that profited greatly from the rise in mass incarceration in the United States, have spent millions on lobbying activities. Although both companies publicly denied lobbying on “sentencing or detention enforcement legislation,” they have benefitted from hiring former legislators and corrections officials and forging political ties by helping their past employees obtain government jobs.

According to the report, these investments have clearly paid off.

“CCA and GEO Group have turned incarceration into a multi-billion dollar industry. Combined, these two corporations operate more than 158 correctional and detention facilities with a capacity of more than 163,500 beds in the U.S. and three other countries,” stated the report. “Together, the companies’ revenues exceed three billion dollars annually.”

As shareholders cash-in, reports of prisoner abuse, poorly-trained and underpaid staff, escapes and wrongful death suits plague the companies. Criminal justice advocates are concerned that these companies will take those same practices into the treatment and rehabilitation arena with dire consequences.

“While the prison industrial complex was dependent on incarceration or detention in prisons, jails, and other correctional institutions, this emerging ‘treatment industrial complex’ allows the same corporations (and many new ones) to profit from providing treatment-oriented programs and services,” stated the report.

Some of those programs and services may be covered under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), a law that disproportionately benefits Blacks that go without healthcare at higher rates than their White counterparts, because it also covers mental health and substance abuse treatment.

As the “Treatment Industrial Complex” expands, the report said that additional research is needed to determine best practices and to guard against potential pitfalls that would have negative impacts on states and local communities.

The report continued: “When a state contracts with an organization or company to provide medical or mental health care, treatment or rehabilitation services, it is handing over control of an essential public function to a company that may have different goals and priorities than the government and public.”

The report recommended that state and local officials looking at the past success of private companies at administering care in the treatment industry, background monitor the mergers and acquisitions of companies, avoid occupancy guarantees and examine the corporate philosophies of companies seeking contracts.

“Corporations such as CCA and GEO Group are historically grounded in a “prison-mindset” that emphasizes custody, control, and punishment. The difference between viewing individuals in a facility as ‘inmates’ versus ‘patients’ or ‘consumers’ is vast,” stated the report. “Even when rebranded as healthcare companies, their original purpose of incarcerating ‘inmates’ remains.”

The report continued: “Large publicly held corporations should be viewed with scrutiny because they must continually produce increasing profit for their shareholders, often prioritizing their shareholder profits over quality, effectiveness and ethical and moral concerns.”

Caroline Isaacs, program director of the Arizona branch of the AFSC and author of the report echoed those concerns.

“With the profitization of treatment and alternatives, there is a perverse incentive to ensnare more individuals, placing them under increased levels of supervision and surveillance, for increasing lengths of time,” said Isaacs in a press release about the report. “This runs contrary to the best practices in the field.”

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