Birmingham Post-Herald
September 26, 2001  

A private problem

Festival documentary explores economy of American prisons


America's prisons today hold 2 million inmates -- almost one of every 150 people in the United States. Each year, taxpayers pay more than $20,000 per inmate to keep those felons locked up.

That cost has not been lost on those trying to reduce the expense of America's prisons. It also has not gone unnoticed by those disturbed by the actions of some of the cost cutters.

Among those in the latter category is documentary filmmaker Ashley Hunt of New York.

His film, "Corrections", looks at some of the abuses that have occurred as cash-strapped states turn over the management of their prisons to private companies.

Hunt's documentary will be screened this weekend at Birmingham's "Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival."

Private prisons exist in Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida. Alabama recently considered leasing prisoners to a private facility in Louisiana, and Mobile County is considering hiring a private firm to operate its new minimum-security jail.

Hunt's interest in documenting the for-profit prison industry started when he read about problems in one such facility.

"It started with this article that was in the New York Times a few years ago about this juvenile facility in Louisiana that had gross human rights violations," he said.

The article on the privately run Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth in Tallulah, La., was on a U.S. Justice Department investigation that found guards beat juvenile inmates.

The article also covered how young offenders were denied clean cloths and shoes; how fights broke out over food and were not stopped by guards; and how inmates with mental or physical illnesses rarely received medications.

The shortage of clothes, food and medicine were ways to cut costs so the company operating the prison could increase its profits, Hunt said.

Three friends of former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards ran the facility until 1999. Edwards is now in prison for extorting payoffs in the awarding of casino licenses during his final gubernatorial term.

Louisiana took control of the Tallulah facility in 1999, but Hunt said he has been told by lawyers and parents that little has changed.

Three weeks ago, he attended a protest parade against zero tolerance laws Louisiana, where children as young as 9 can be put behind bars. On top of the protesters' list was the demand to close Tallulah.

While "Corrections" raises the issue of human rights violations at privately run prisons, that is only part of the problem, Hunt said.

Some facilities treat their inmates fairly, he said. Most, however, don't save taxpayers any money.

"The Justice Department just released a study showing that private prisons are more dangerous and more costly than state-run prisons," said Lisa Kung, a staff attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta.

Hunt said private prison companies sometimes seduce public officials by putting up the front-end cost of building the prison. It works like a credit card. Eventually the taxpayers will pay off the cost of the facility, plus enough profit to make it worthwhile for the private company, he said.

In addition to human rights issues and hidden costs, Hunt sees a deeper problem in prison privatization.

"The real question the film tries to ask is: 'When profit gets brought into a public institution of government, does it have an influence on the way that institution works?'" he said.

When prisons and jails become private, suddenly people who are making money and who have a relationship with governing officials have good reason to want more people in jail, Hunt said.

Statistics already show that the war on drugs and tougher policies against crime are the forces behind the prison boom.

The number of incarcerated drug offenders rose by 510 percent from 1983 to 1993, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The bureau also reports that new court commitments to state prisons increased by 155 percent from 1980 to 1990, but violent offenders accounted for only 16 percent of this increase.

And no clear relationship exists between incarceration rates and crime rates. From 1986 to 1991, despite the fact that imprisonment rose 51 percent, violent crime also increased by 15 percent.

Hunt said he believes the privatization of prisons will put more pressure on elected officials to put even more people behind bars despite the fact the the prison boom hasn't solved problems with crime.

It won't just be a social issue. It will also be an economic issue with a wealthy industry lobbying for more and more inmates, he said.

Hunt recalled one conversation in "Corrections" with a man who sells security fences to the prison industry. Here's his take on the prison boom:

"Truth be told, that's what keeps us in business -- the more that come in. Things are getting better and better."


Laws prohibit state from privatizing prisons;
Counties ponder issue


The privatization of prisons and jails the subject of one film at Birmingham's "Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival" this weekend has been in the news recently in Alabama.

While the state decided not to put its prisoners in private, for-profit prisons, the issue is still under consideration in Mobile County.

And in August, Alabama's Department of Corrections considered paying a private prison in Louisiana to take some of its prisoners.

After the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta filed a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections and Gov. Don Siegelman, Alabama decided against the move.

Lisa Kung, a staff attorney with the center, said her firm has been monitoring private prisons. She said Alabama has two laws that have so far kept the state from going to privatization.

A 1928 law made it unlawful "for any person to lease or let for hire any state convict to any person, firm or corporation."

The Legislature also passed an anti-prison privatization bill in 1999 that forbids the Department of Corrections from delegating control and custody of Alabama's prisoners to a private firm without legislative approval.

But while such laws have kept the state from going private, the issue is still being considered at the county level.

Commissioners in Mobile County asked Sheriff Jack Tillman to look into how much private companies would charge to run the county's new minimum-security jail. The request came after the jail budget for the next fiscal year came in at $3.1 million.

"I wanted to compare the cost and also look at liability issues," Commissioner Mike Dean said. "More counties around the country are looking into privatization."

Dean said both Florida and Arizona have counties with privately run county jails.

Tillman later revised his jail budget request, paring it to $2 million.

That lower figure could keep the county from hiring a private firm to run the minimum security jail, Dean said.

Sheriff's spokesman Chad Tucker said Tillman still is looking at privatization but has not found any reason to hire a private firm.

"We've really found no positives about privatization," Tucker said. "If (the private company is) out there to make money, then you're obviously at risk of spending more money than you would have to if you were doing it yourself."

The new $2 million jail budget puts the daily cost of keeping an inmate at less than $17, Tucker said.

Ashley Hunt, director of the documentary "Corrections," which is about prison privatization, said the low inmate cost in Alabama might keep the state from going private even though neighboring states have all turned to that option.

"The average daily cost per inmate in Alabama is, I believe, the lowest in the nation," Hunt said. "No private company can reasonably come in and do it that cheap and make a profit."