Take This Job and Shiv It! Michigan Republicans Push to Monetize the Operations of Prison System & Prisoner Labor
A2P Notes: This is the debut of Amy Kerr Hardin on A2Politico. However, it is not her first foray into politics or writing. She is an experienced political consultant, and in her neck of the woods (near Traverse City, Michigan) she has worked on multiple candidate campaigns. Get her answering machine and you will hear a voice message that is a clever dig at the state’s Emergency Manager law (Public Act 4) and the people who support the law—a law which Hardin has worked to see overturned. Her interest in politics extends to all three branches of government—a level of interest and curiosity that should impress anyone who reads her carefully crafted and researched writing. She is not a one topic wonder, but rather a political polymath. A magazine recently asked me to name Michigan’s most influential political bloggers and to talk about the political writers whom I read regularly. I put Amy Hardin on that list of Michigan writers whose work is well-crafted, well-researched and thought-provoking. I think you’ll agree that Amy Kerr Hardin is a must-read. Look for her pieces on Sunday.
Amy begins this week with a piece about the push by Michigan’s Republican-controlled state legislature to reshape the state’s prison system into a profit center for industry. The Atlantic Monthly cover, below, is from an issue of the magazine published in 1998. Attempts have been ongoing in states around the country to privatize and outsource the operations of the state-owned prisons, along with schemes to exploit the labor pool of prisoners. The game? To produce big profits for big corporate overseers. Amy writes about companies spending millions (sometimes illegally) lobbying. The idea is to add Michigan to the list of states that outsource prison operations and the labor of prisoners to billion dollar conglomerates.
by Amy Kerr Hardin
At long last, some promising employment news for the Midwest.
Michigan lawmakers, under the leadership of Governor Rick Snyder, are truly enabling their corporate partners to bring meaningful employment back to that once great state.
They’ve cleverly attracted some key corporate “job creators” through a controversial $1.8 billion dollar corporate tax cut. Sure, their plan lacked an accountability mechanism, which worried many because it was a huge calculated risk. However, throwing money at the rich, and gambling on a job-creating pay-off, is exactly the kind of brilliant manuever expected out of a great corporate genius like Snyder. He campaigned as the “Nerd,” and it was his keen head for business that drew-in Michiganders to bet their taxpayer dollars on Snyder when they swept him into office in 2010. He promised what seemed the impossible — to turnaround Michigan through the application of some basic business principles.
And it’s working. The “job creators” have 43,000 employment opportunities awaiting those beleaguered Michiganders — a population that has endured a one-state depression for over a decade.
Now, thanks to Governor Snyder’s bold leadership, relief is finally in the cards.
Who are these super-hero corporate job creators? And how can one get a piece of that long awaited full-time employment action?
Private prison corporations are the “who,” and the commission of a felony is the “how.”
As it turns out, a Michigan resident has a better chance of finding employment if incarcerated than they do through traditional means. Knocking off a liquor store will land them guaranteed full-time employment faster than any advanced degree.
Michigan lawmakers are rushing to privatize their prisons so they may be managed by for-profit corporations who view the 43,000 inmates currently incarcerated as a golden money-making opportunity — not in terms of turning an easy taxpayer buck off of running the facility itself — no, that’s just the goose. The golden egg is “employing” the prisoners in a for-profit scheme under the provisions found in the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program, (PIECP, or ”PIE” for short, but it’s not a sweet pie).
To the mind of a pure capitalist, the competitive bidding process will achieve the maximum savings potential for Michigan taxpayers who currently outlay two billion dollars a year on corrections operations. However, many of these bidders are clearly gaming the system. Take a moment to Google any combination of the following corporations and you will discover that they are interrelated in multiple ways: Group 4 Falck, Group 4 Securicor, GEO Group Inc., Premier Custodial, Global Solutions Ltd., Wackenhut Corp., Correctional Services Corp., just to name a few.
These are the bidders.
There’s more incest here than among the Hapsburgs. Some are subsidiaries of each other, others are merged, some are offshoots, and they are frequently heavily invested in one another. Furthermore, examination of their lists of principals shows plenty of cross-pollination in the boardroom too. Their complex corporate web spans the globe – wherever there are prisons and prisoners, you’ll find the same usual suspects. Untangling all their connections would be a venn diagram from hell.
Under PIECP these corrections system vendors drive the policy of prison labor practices by controlling it through a sub-contracted privatized oversight committee, the National Correctional Industries Association. The board of the NCIA is heavily weighted by private industry advocates. The corporate fox guarding the “pen” house.
These same private vendors have a history of buying politicians. Correctional Services Corporation was fined $300,000 for buying votes in New York State, and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was similarly fined for inappropriate lobbying. But, to them that’s all simply part of doing business — it’s factored-in. These fines are a pittance compared to their profits. One company with deep roots in Michigan, GEO Group Inc., hauled-in $1.27 billion in 2010. Its top six executives earned a combined income $13.5 million that same year. That’s on average $2.25 million a piece. The inmates that slave-away for them earn, at best, a couple of bucks an hour. A full-time inmate laborer can expect $4,000 to $5,000 a year, that’s .002 percent of those profiting off their sweat.
CCA is currently on a big sales push. They recently sent a letter to 48 states, including Michigan, attempting to corner the market on prison labor under the guise of claiming to help states cut correctional systems costs. In that letter they promised that, with a signed 20 year contract in hand, they will maintain a 90 percent occupancy rate in their facilities.
Just how can they accomplish that? They certainly don’t control the crime rate. However, what they do hold sway over is the incarceration rate and sentencing laws.
In a report issued this past January by The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group, it is documented that the CCA spends on average $1.4 million a year nationally lobbying for its causes, and in 2010 alone they spent an additional $1.2 million on campaign contributions. Here’s a disturbingly frank excerpt from the CCA 2010 Annual Report:
“Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional facilities. This possible growth depends on a number of factors we cannot control, including crime rates and sentencing patterns in various jurisdictions and acceptance of privatization. The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.”
The two biggest players in the prison privatization game are CCA and GEO Group. Both are former members of, and substantial contributors to, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). CCA struck-out on its own in 2010 to conduct their own lobbying efforts, and GEO alike, did so a few years earlier. Both corporations grew large enough that they no longer wished to share the pie with lesser players vying for attention through ALEC.
ALEC, nonetheless, remains a major driving force behind model legislation across the country. The bulk of the lobbyist-written bills are intended to tighten criminal laws and increase mandatory sentencing. ALEC’s official status with the IRS is as a 501(c)(3) corporation, which legally prevents them from participating in the crafting of legislation. However, they apparently feel the law simply doesn’t apply to them. They’re churning-out model legislation on prisons, criminal laws and sentencing mandates as fast as their lawmaker members can introduce them on the floor, often ver batum from the ALEC model.
Michigan’s Attorney General, Bill Schuette, is pushing hard for new legislation called VO-4, — that is short for a “four strikes and you’re out” law for violent offenders. Schuette wants an automatic sentence of 25 years for those convicted of a fourth offense. This comes with a hefty price new price tag though. It’s estimated that Michigan prisons would require an additional 17,798 beds over the next 25 years, adding $585 million per year in new spending to the current $2 billion outlay for state-wide corrections costs.
How do they plan to pay for this? The Republican mantra is that increased privatization will make up the difference, however the experts just aren’t buying it. The Michigan Corrections Organization issued a detailed report, “Pitfalls and Promises” that refutes the privatization concept, and goes further to demonstrate why it will cost the state more in tax dollars rather than less.
If Schuette has his way, Michigan can expect their current prison population of 43,000 to continue to reinforce the national trend of the gross over-incarceration of its citizenry. The United States holds nearly 2.3 million people in its prisons – that’s 25 percent of the world’s total prisoners, a number made all the more shocking knowing that the U.S. comprises only 5 percent of the world’s overall population. America, the free-est nation in the world, locks-up the equivalent of the populations of Delaware, South Dakota, and Wyoming combined, that’s 730 people for every 100,000 in the country — the highest rate in the world. The global average is 125. Up until 1975, the U.S. averaged 110, but in the mid-70′s there was a national push for longer prison terms, and Americans now enjoy the world’s harshest sentencing system.
Michigan has been particularly aggressive in incarcerating its youthful offenders. The State has 359 inmates that have been sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed when they were children. This is the second highest number in the nation. Only Pennsylvania locks-up more kids and throws away the key.
Under the policies set by PIECP, watchdogged by the private vendors themselves through the NCIA, and enabled by the stricter laws they lobbied for via ALEC, among others, the United States now offers 2.3 million of its people, with 43,000 in Michigan alone, to be exploited by companies like Wal-Mart, Victoria’s Secret, Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks, K-Mart, JC Penney, Eddie Bauer, Honda, TWA, and Northern Outfitters, among many others. These companies routinely hide behind sub-contractors — giving Victoria’s “Secret” a whole new meaning. Under the PIECP rules, the prisons must pay the “prevailing wage” to inmate worker-slaves, but they are allowed to deduct up to 80 percent of that to cover “costs,” plus taxes, and they do.
Michigan lawmakers are taking it a step further. They want to allow the private prison companies to employ the prisoners to perform duties within the prison, such as custodial and food service, but first the state must legislate an exemption to the minimum wage laws so the private companies can have what will amount to a free work force to run the prison where they will literally have a huge captive labor force at their disposal to contract-out to make millions in corporate profits, all while enjoying Snyder’s generous corporate tax cut on their bounty.
This isn’t the kind of job creation Michigan voters were hoping for when they gambled on Snyder, but it’s the hand they’ve been dealt.
Amy Kerr Hardin writes at Democracy-tree.com.
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