In 2012, after serving over 15 years in the dilapidated and thoroughly inhumane state-run institutions of the Florida Department of Corrections, I found myself staring through the mesh-plated windows of a transport bus at the gleaming razor wire that surrounded my next home: Blackwater River Correctional Facility, a private prison in the Panhandle owned by the GEO Group… and I was thrilled.
No more un-air-conditioned, hot-box dormitories, no more meager servings of disgusting food, no more mentally ill cell mates, abusive staff, shabby laundry, inadequate supplies. No more misery. I had arrived in the land of milk and honey. Sweetwater. Arctic-level AC, hot edible food, ESPN, movies on the weekends, rec every day, a roll of soft toilet paper once a week. This was more like it. This was living!
Unfortunately, it didn’t last. Four short years later, I was back on the bus. Tears in my eyes, utopia in the rearview, headed back to that from whence I came. Another filthy, sweltering, state-run facility. Word was they were turning the privatized paradise into a psych camp and apparently I wasn’t crazy enough to stay.
Upon my return to the prison system I grew up in, it was evident that much had changed while I was away. New secretary Julie Jones had curtailed most of the staff abuse by installing cameras and audio in confinement units. The food was better, supplies were given out more frequently, motivational slogans were painted on the walls, and the department had changed its name from the Department of Corrections to the Florida Department of Corrections in an effort to distance itself from its own bloody, 150-year history. But even with all these upgrades, the state-run facilities were still ramshackle hovels compared to their outsourced, for-profit counterparts.
So I was blown away when I read a USAToday article in August of 2016, detailing how then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates planned to phase out all private prisons in the Federal system once their contracts expired. She said that companies like GEO “don’t provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources as the Federal Bureau of Prisons…”
Was she really saying that my beloved Blackwater, with its edible food and air conditioning and ESPN was not up to Federal standards? And if so, how cushy was Federal prison? But as I read on, I began to understand. The Obama administration, along with the Loretta Lynch DOJ and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle didn’t want to be tethered to those who would seek to profit from the exploitation of human captivity. These are people who lobby to keep archaic mandatory minimums in place, donate millions to candidates who will keep the “war on drugs” going, who need fathers removed from homes so their at-risk sons and daughters will one day fill empty prison bunks, who have a vested interest in high recidivism and overcrowded jails… it’s their bread and butter.
It was no surprise to see GEO Group stock plummet 38 percent when Ms. Yates made this announcement. Nor was it much of a shocker when, six months later, the Trump administration immediately rescinded the order upon moving into the White House, causing the stock to soar again. After all, these same prison profiteers donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Make America Great Again war chest, plus a million the same year lobbying Congress, targeting appropriations bills. And it looks like their palm-greasing is already paying huge dividends with this immigration crisis. Nothing spells profit like selling poor refugee detainees international phone cards at gouge-level prices.
Bernie Sanders nailed it: “It is an international embarrassment that we put more people behind bars than any other country on earth. Due in large part to private prisons, incarceration has been a source of major profits to private corporations. We have got to end the private prison racket in America.”
Today, I’m grateful for the gnats dive-bombing my food in the chow hall, for my lumpy, plastic-covered mat, for the lukewarm water fountain, even for the triple-digit July sweat rolling down my back as I pen this essay. I’d rather write about the struggle from here in the trenches than from some plush, privatized luxury box. Especially one that is owned by the very people who are betting that the land of the free will remain the world’s leading incarcerator.