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Abolish private prisons

| Wednesday, September 16, 2020

To Whom It May Concern: 

We write in support of Notre Dame student and faculty advocacy to end Notre Dame’s investment in private for-profit prisons and to respond to the letter from Brian Evans (’90) of The GEO Group that was published in The Observer on Sept. 9. It is time to end what corrections law expert Ira Robbins calls our approximately 40-year “lamentable experiment with private prisons.” They constitute the latest government-sanctioned incarnation of slavery, introduce perverse profit incentives into our justice system and strip dignity from prisoners by treating them as revenue-generating assets — all the while failing to deliver their promised cost savings. 

At Abolish Private Prisons, we believe that incarceration is the responsibility of government alone, and that generating profit from mass incarceration for corporate owners violates the U.S. Constitution. On June 15, we filed our first lawsuit on behalf of individuals in private prisons and the Arizona State Conference of the NAACP to challenge the constitutionality of prison privatization. We add our voices to the chorus of students and faculty at Notre Dame and across the country who are calling for divestment and an end to the practice of locking people up for profit. 

Private prisons only exist because government officials authorize them. Like other institutional business models such as hospitals and hotels, private prisons thrive when cells are full and more private prisons are built. Prison corporations support harsh sentencing laws, oppose criminal justice reforms (including legislation that would make prison corporations subject to public records law) and spend millions of dollars on lobbyists and political candidates to support their industry. 

Prison corporations calculate profits for every “man-day” each prisoner spends in a private prison cell. The longer each prisoner remains in a private prison, the more the government pays, so the corporation that exists to make profits has no incentive to see prisoners released. When private prison corporations increase the number of people they incarcerate, they also increase their stock values and executive compensation, converting incarcerated people into valuable inventory. SEC filings by prison corporations describe criminal justice reforms as threats to profitability.

The status of the jailer matters. 

Prison corporations increase their profits by cutting operational costs that dramatically affect prison conditions which, in turn, affect individual liberties, including safety. There is also an effect on violence, incidents that impact length of time served, early release credits, discipline and eligibility for parole and clemency and the likelihood of successful reentry by prisoners to their communities. 

The bulk of studies (except those paid for by the industry itself) conclude that private prisons are less safe, cost as much or more than public prisons, increase the amount of time prisoners spend incarcerated and do not reduce recidivism. Likewise, government supervision and accountability is greatly diminished. For example, in 2016 U.S. Department of Justice report found that “in a majority of the categories we examined, contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable [Bureau of Prisons] institutions,” improperly housed new inmates in solitary confinement and were not being sufficiently overseen by federal monitors. Several state agencies or auditors have concluded that cost savings are either non-existent or marginal at best, including Arizona, Hawaii (whose auditor general found it impossible to determine rates accurately) and Georgia. 

For these reasons and more, a number of faith-based and civic groups are calling for abolition of private prisons on moral and ethical grounds. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops question whether entities with a profit motive can effectively run prisons, and 43 Catholic Bishops of the South called for an end to for-profit prisons because they are not consistent with treating each and every person with dignity. 

Fundamentally we do not believe private prisons should exist at all. Recently we had the opportunity to participate in a podcast with Notre Dame’s’ Center For Social Concerns where we discussed the problems of tangling profit and justice in depth. We urge the Notre Dame community and the University itself to do all it can to oppose prison privatization, including by divesting from prison corporations. A passive or neutral position supports the industry. 

John R. Dacey

class of 1973 

Robert E. Craig 

Thomas A. Zlaket

class of 1962

Sept. 13

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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