Alex Friedmann was once in favor of private prisons. He spent six years in a freshly built one in Tennessee from 1992 to 1998. He was serving time for armed robberies committed between the ages of 18 and 22.
At South Central Corrections Facility in Clifton, Tennessee, things were run by the private corrections company CCA, which is now called CoreCivic.
“Things were shiny. They had soft drinks in the dining hall. It all looked pretty good,” he said.
Before long, he noticed the problems that stemmed from the company’s efforts to cut costs – namely, high turnover among members of the prison’s underpaid staff, which led to security issues.
“We had a murder in the first two months I was there,” he said, in addition to “an escape a couple of months after I was there. Riots broke out and so on.”
Later, he was moved to a public facility, identical in most ways except that it had more staff members to help keep the peace. Friedmann said CoreCivic touts its security cameras as an effective replacement for staff members.
"But if someone is stabbing you with a shank, you don't want technology," he noted. "You want someone to stop stabbing you with a shank."
'Mass incarceration industry'
Now, Friedmann is assistant director of the Human Rights Defense Center, which advocates for prisoners' rights. He said prisons are necessary, but what he called the “mass incarceration industry” is not.
“It is immoral, unethical and unacceptable to incarcerate people for the purpose of generating profit,” he said.
The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group working to reduce use of incarceration in the United States, earlier this month released a report on growth in the private prison industry since the beginning of the 21st century. It noted that the number of people held in private prisons has increased 47 percent since 2000, so that now 1 in every 12 people in the U.S. prison population is being held in a private facility.
It also said private prison companies keep operational costs low by employing non-union, low-skilled workers at lower salaries and more limited benefits than their counterparts in public institutions.
Jeannie Alexander heads a group called No Exceptions Prison Collective, which advocates abolition of private prisons.
Fundamentally, she said, the problem with private prisons is that the number of bodies in cells determines how much money each facility makes. "The product is the prisoner," she said.
Alexander was one of about 20 people arrested Aug. 6 in Nashville, Tennessee, during a demonstration at CoreCivic headquarters.
In Boca Raton, Florida, a similar protest drew about 100 people to the headquarters of GEO Group, the other leading private prison company in the United States. CoreCivic holds about 42 percent of the private prison market in the United States; GEO Group has about 37 percent. The rest is held by smaller companies.
Former inmates such as Friedmann, families of inmates, and former employees of private prisons have accused the companies of neglecting health care and security concerns in the interest of saving money or coping with staffing shortages.
When VOA contacted CoreCivic and GEO Group to ask about allegations of inferior care of inmates, both companies responded promptly with emailed statements.
CoreCivic, which is facing at least three class-action lawsuits over medical care for diabetic inmates, said it cannot comment on pending litigation, but is "committed to providing high-quality health care to those entrusted to our care. It added that "it is our policy and practice to maintain appropriate levels of staffing in our facilities."
GEO Group said it strongly disputes allegations of poor medical care in its facilities, adding, "on a daily basis, our dedicated employees deliver high-quality services, including around-the-clock medical care, that comply with requirements and standards set by federal and state government agencies and adhere to guidelines set by leading third-party accreditation agencies. ... Members of our team strive to treat all those entrusted to our care with compassion, dignity and respect."
One other major allegation is that private prisons keep their foothold in the U.S. corrections industry with campaign contributions to politicians and use of lobbying firms to push for tough-on-crime legislation that keeps prisons full.
The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) reported in January that CoreCivic and GEO Group each contributed $250,000 to the president's inaugural committee.
Just days after Trump's inauguration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era memo announcing the Justice Department would phase out the use of private prisons. Sessions said the phase-out would impair the government's ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system. After Sessions' announcement, the stock prices of both companies jumped.
The CRP also reported that GEO Group spent $1.7 million on lobbying expenses in 2017, and $770,000 in 2018. CoreCivic spent $840,000 in 2017 and $550,000 in 2018.
To this, CoreCivic replied: "Much of the information about our company being shared by special interest groups is wrong and politically motivated, resulting in people reaching misguided conclusions about what we do. ... Historically, our lobbying efforts have focused primarily on educating officials about the scope of solutions we can provide and advocating for partnering agencies to get full funding as it relates to their contracts with us."
CoreCivic also said it does not draft, lobby for, promote or in any way take a position on policies that would affect the basis or duration of an individual's incarceration or detention.
For its part, GEO Group said: "Our company does not take a position on, nor have we ever advocated for or against, criminal justice or immigration policies such as whether to criminalize behavior, the length of criminal sentences, or the basis for the length of an individual's incarceration or detention."
In its report, the Sentencing Project calls for private prisons to meet the same transparency standards that public institutions are held to.
Federal prisons are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, meaning its records can be released upon inquiry; and many states have similar laws that apply to state-run institutions. In private prisons, that kind of transparency is "practically nonexistent," Sentencing Project executive director Marc Mauer said.
"Not to say that there aren't problems in public prisons, too," Mauer said, "but at the very least, we have legislators with the authority or ability to engage in that oversight. And that's very difficult when it's a private contractor."
Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law, takes a different view of the problem.
"Is it fair to expect a private company to succeed where a public one has failed?" she asks. In her book, "Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration," Eisen advocates performance-based contracting, in which renewal is based on achievement of certain goals, like reducing recidivism. If we want better performance from private prisons, "we allow them the flexibility and innovation to get there," she argues.
Friedmann, the advocate with behind-bars experience, offers a more blunt remedy. Private prisons do everything that public prisons do, he notes, but they must do it while turning a profit. The situation invites problems. For him, the best method is clear: "Get the profit out of our criminal justice system."