Getting Rich Off Ruining Lives, How Private For-Profit Prisons Use Juveniles as a Tool to Line Their Pockets

photo courtesy of: http://www.wired.com/rawfile/2012/04/photog-hopes-to-effect-policy-with-survey-of-juvenile-lock-ups/#slideid-45151

Cutting costs and saving money has become a top priority in many industries across the country, pushing effectiveness, performance, and successful outcomes lower and lower down the totem pole.  With budgetary strains affecting states across the country, governments are putting more faith in privatization as a way to save money.  One industry that has experienced enormous controversy over privatization efforts is the juvenile justice system.  Despite an extensive record full of allegations regarding physical and sexual abuse, poor facility conditions, and inadequate programming that has come to characterize the for-profit private juvenile prison industry, nearly 40% of juvenile delinquents in the United States today are housed in private institutions.

The name James Slattery has become associated with private prisons, but for all the wrong reasons.  A one-time New York City hotelier, Slattery is not a newcomer to the prison scene.  From establishing “welfare hotels” in the 1980s to halfway houses for federal prisoners in the 1990s, Slattery’s profit making ventures have consistently been controversial, both in nature and performance.  Notwithstanding the repugnant track record his previous enterprises hold, Slattery, now head of Youth Services International (YSI), has contracts with 16 states and has been entrusted with the responsibility of supervising over 40,000 juveniles over the past 20 years.  Perhaps one of the most notorious news pieces associated with Slattery’s name occurred at a boot camp in Texas operated by one of his previous companies, Correctional Services Corporation.  In 2001, a juvenile came down with pneumonia and begged guards to see a doctor because he couldn’t breathe.  Instead of complying with his request, staff accused the juvenile of faking it and forced him to do pushups in his own vomit.  Nine days later, the juvenile died due to medical neglect.

YSI’s private for-profit juvenile prisons embody a horrific example of what happens when the government punts social services to private entities with little subsequent oversight.  Driven by their bottom line focus, Slattery’s facilities pay dismal wages to employees resulting in high staff turnover rates and leaving inexperienced and poorly trained guards left to supervise juvenile populations.  The resulting conditions are dangerous and unsatisfactory; juveniles are subject to extensive physical and sexual abuse, neglect, and deprivation, many times being forced to live in abysmal conditions with substandard basic necessities.  “When oversight is not as strong as it can be, companies are only going to be incentivized to do what the government that’s paying them makes them do.  And so in these cases if the oversight is lacking, if there is not constant monitoring, I think there is an incentive to cut costs and services.”

Even though the juvenile justice system was created with rehabilitative efforts in mind in an attempt to help youth become productive, law-abiding adults, “[p]rivate for-profit prisons squarely undermine good juvenile justice practices because these companies’ business models predicate high incarceration and recidivism rates for kids so that they can continue to fill beds in their facilities.  This might be the saddest profit motive ever.” Once states agree to these long-term contracts, they are obligated to fill the prison beds within these private facilities or else face penalties and pay for all unused, empty beds.  As a for-profit institution, YSI prisons benefit from keeping more people locked up.  In the words of Juvenile Judge Ron Alvarez, these institutions are like a third world country that is controlled by some type of evil power.  YSI’s juvenile facilities have violated and continue to violate numerous federal and state guidelines by frequently and unnecessarily using abusive treatments, the unavailability and inadequacy of programs and basic necessities such as food, and extremely violent confrontations between guards and youth, with reports showing that guards slap and choke juveniles even to the point of fracturing youth’s bones at times.

“Over the past quarter century, Slattery’s for-profit prison enterprises have run afoul of the Justice Department and authorities in New York, Florida, Maryland, Nevada and Texas for alleged offenses ranging from condoning abuse of inmates to plying politicians with undisclosed gifts while seeking to secure state contracts.” Despite the allegations against YSI’s facilities, they are able to continue acquiring contracts through practices such as poor and sometimes even falsified documentation, neglecting to document serious events and scaring youth into not reporting incidents.  “The paperwork looked great, because someone was going around and spending overtime just to make sure that paperwork was correct.  If there was something missing, they would just forge it”, according to former supervisor for a YSI juvenile detention center, Angela Phillips.  Slattery is also able to avoid repercussion by pulling out of contracts before the government has a chance to take action.  Furthermore, a complete lack of governmental interest allows Slattery’s abusive institutions to remain viable placement for juvenile offenders.  Perhaps one of the most illustrative examples of this unsettling truth can be seen in youth facilities in Florida, where 100% of the state’s juveniles are housed in private prisons.  A Florida YSI facility with a history of numerous abuse allegations, had eight confirmed cases of child abuse in one year, which were all well documented.  In the same year, 96% of the staff left this facility.  Remarkably, the Department of Justice not only reinstated YSI’s contract, but also fired the monitor who reported the cases of abuse.  According to a former DOJ executive staffer, “They [FL] don’t want the providers to look bad, because they don’t have anyone else to provide this service. . . Bottom line, the state of Florida doesn’t want responsibility for these kids.”  Furthermore, Slattery has a tendency of acquiring powerful confederates within the government by making contributions to state candidates and committees.  Over the past 15 years, Slattery, his wife, and other YSI executives have donated in excess of $400,000 to Florida politicians, representing more than the combined donations of both Office Depot and Darden Restaurants, two of Florida’s largest Fortune 500 companies.

Marketing their institutions as able to provide benefits to taxpayers and produce better outcomes at lower costs than state run facilities, YSI’s claims have been severely undermined by an overabundance of evidence.  Generating some of the worst reoffending rates in the nation, more than 40% of juveniles housed in a YSI facility in Florida were rearrested and convicted of another crime within a year of their release in comparison to only 25% in New York, a state that has never utilized private prison facilities, within the same timeframe.  In an effort to cut costs, states that have turned to private for-profit prisons to house some of their most troubled youth are washing their hands of the responsibility to care for juvenile populations that could substantially benefit from rehabilitative efforts, yet they are essentially being left in the care of a man tainted with a horrific history who is focused solely on the bottom line.  “Quality assurance is looking at contract adherence, whether they’re meeting the general terms of the contract, not the goals of the rehabilitation of the youth.”

Although the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice recently announced they wouldn’t be renewing their contract with YSI for the facility that holds the title of having the highest rate of youth alleging sexual assaults in the country, with upwards of 30% alleging inappropriate sexual contact with staff, a spokesman for the Department claimed the decision was driven by the need to cut costs rather than due to the allegations of rampant sexual misconduct.  With little governmental interest or oversight in these private facilities, even after allegations of abuse and claims of inadequate programming and subpar conditions surface, Slattery, YSI, and other private juvenile institutions will have free reign to do as they please to our juvenile populations.  The overarching motives supporting the creation of a separate juvenile justice system are based on a juvenile’s unique salvageability, as their traits and characteristics are more malleable and transitory in nature and therefore are more susceptible to rehabilitative efforts than their adult counterparts.  With few rehabilitative programs in place in these private prisons and little to look forward to in terms of available opportunities upon release (especially without support and guidance), state’s current reliance on private prisons to “rehabilitate” our country’s juvenile populations is essentially ensuring that a large part of those released will return to some sort of detention down the road, whether it be juvenile or adult prison.  If the government can’t even show interest in providing programs, services, and adequate basic necessities to a population that has been shown to possess the unique ability to learn and grow from their past behaviors and mistakes, the possibility of a bright future for anyone, juveniles and society as a whole included, is bleak and dismal.  Studies have shown that youth incarceration doesn’t reduce recidivism rates, doesn’t benefit public safety, and exposes youth in confinement to further abuse and violence.  Exhibiting almost an addictive approach towards incarceration, it seems as if the United States has moved from an attitude based on problem solving towards a more repressive philosophy that essentially serves to destroy a promising and hopeful juvenile population.  If there’s any hope for a brighter future for anyone involved, there needs to be a collective understanding that oppressive incarceration, especially in abusive for-profit private prisons, is not the answer.

What the United States and Somalia Have in Common

photo courtesy of: http://ioneglobalgrind.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/12.jpg?w=390
photo courtesy of: http://ioneglobalgrind.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/12.jpg?w=390

photo courtesy of: http://ioneglobalgrind.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/12.jpg?w=390

The United States is one of the only countries in the world that sentences people to die in prison for crimes they committed prior to their eighteenth birthday.  In other words, the United States is unique in that it allows, and in fact sometimes requires, our justice system to sentence individuals to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed before turning eighteen years old.  The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child bans sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole.  Besides the United States, Somalia is the only other country that has failed to ratify the treaty.  In many ways an innovative instrument, the convention is the first international treaty enacted to implement minimum standards for the protection of children’s rights, guaranteeing civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights to children.  Focused on the four general principles, non-discrimination, best interests of the child, right to life, survival, and development, and views of the child, the treaty recognizes the special vulnerabilities of children and acknowledges their ever-evolving capabilities.  While the U.S. has failed to ratify the Convention, it has adopted two of its optional provisions, Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, preventing governments from forcing children under the age of eighteen into compulsorily duty in the armed forces and Sale of Children, Child Prostitution, and Child Pornography, prohibiting the sale of children as well as child prostitution and pornography.  Additionally, in 1992, the U.S. ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which required rehabilitation to be the focus of juvenile punishment, however the U.S. has reserved the right to sentence juveniles to life without parole in extreme cases involving severe criminals and hardened crimes.

Utilizing the punishment much more often than anywhere else in the world, the practice gained the most support in the 1980s and 1990s when the country saw a spike in violent crimes committed by youth, garnering a wealth of media coverage, and causing politicians to adopt “tough on crime” policies in an attempt to quell public apprehensions.  According to a report by The Sentencing Project, there has been an increase in life sentences given across the board for all offenders, adults and youth alike, with individuals serving life sentences without the possibility of parole increasing by nearly 10,000 in just four years from 2008 to 2012.  By allowing individuals to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed prior to their eighteenth birthday, the United States is neglecting to account for the vast differences that exist between adult and youth offenders, including but not limited to poverty, childhood abuse, and youthfulness in general, all factors that can contribute to the crime committed.  Placing rehabilitation at the center of juvenile punishments acknowledges the notion that youth are still developing physically, mentally, and emotionally and because they are continually learning, expanding, and growing, they are capable of benefitting exceptionally from rehabilitation, rather than incarceration.

With about 2,500 youth offenders currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, a change in attitude toward juvenile crimes is definitely needed, but has America recognized this need?  Two recent Supreme Court cases, Graham v. Florida (2010) and Miller v. Alabama (2012), may lend support for an answer in the affirmative.  In Graham, the Court stated that because of the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional differences between juveniles and adults, individuals under the age of eighteen at the time of committing a crime cannot be given sentences of life without the possibility of parole unless charged with homicide.  The Court in Miller determined that states cannot imprison juveniles under laws that mandatorily impose life sentences without the possibility of parole as a penalty for homicide.  Viewing the imposition of mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole on juveniles without considering age and other relevant factors as a violation of the eighth amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, Graham and Miller are steps in the right direction towards recognizing the extensive differences between juvenile and adult offenders. However, yet another question now surfaces.  Should the holding in Miller, with the potential of having life changing effects for thousands of already incarcerated offenders, be applied retroactively to the approximately 2,000 prisoners who are currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole under statutes such as the one discussed in Miller?  Youth cannot be given life sentences unless their proceedings are transferred out of the juvenile justice system and into adult court, as no such sentence is available through the juvenile system.  To pose an even broader question, should juveniles ever be transferred to adult court in the first place?  With approximately 2,000 youth offenders convicted under statutes like those outlawed by Miller serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, many of them could potentially be given a second chance by applying the Miller holding retroactively or alternatively, could have benefitted from refusing the transfer of youth to the adult system in the first place.  Furthermore, as a nation, are there things we could be doing on the front end to reduce some of the societal indicators that have a tendency of being associated with youth committing crimes before they turn eighteen?  Some argue that by focusing energy and efforts towards the reduction of child poverty, protection from child abuse, expansion of access to mental health and other support services, and improvement in school quality youth might not end up in a courtroom confronting in a judge in the first place and therefore not have to face the possibility of one of the harshest sentences available, life without the possibility of parole.

Because of their age and continual ongoing development of their brains, youth, as a whole, are arguably more capable of maturing, changing, and growing through rehabilitative efforts than are adults.  Rather than automatically giving up on individuals who commit crimes prior to their eighteenth birthdays, when given the opportunity to rehabilitate by being guided through proper avenues, there is a likely chance that many youth offenders will be able to successfully reenter society.  In light of these notions, supporters of this view would likely advocate for the retroactive application of the Miller holding.  On the other hand, one might argue that the harm to society may be greater in general given the potential juveniles possess for high rates of recidivism.  Opponents and relatives of victims killed by juvenile offenders don’t believe that the youth deserve a second chance, in light of the fact that their victims aren’t afforded the same opportunity.  They would be hard pressed to argue that releasing any of the juveniles currently incarcerated and serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole would serve the overarching goal of protecting the public.

As you get older, your conscience and reasoning capabilities develop and mature, a concept that lends support to the notion that juvenile offenders can particularly benefit from rehabilitation efforts.  The state has a legitimate and compelling interest in protecting society and the juvenile offender alike.  Life sentences without the possibility of parole send a message to society that authorities are “tough on crime” and arguably, are utilized to act as a deterrent to prevent future crimes.  But considering that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for regulating impulse control and emotional response, doesn’t stop developing until one’s mid twenties, can juveniles really be held accountable for weighing short term risks and long term consequences in the same way adults are?  Juvenile offenders, like all offenders, must be held accountable for their behavior and must face consequences for their actions, but is condemning them to die in prison through life sentences without the possibility of parole the best way to handle it?

Shine a Light on Human Trafficking

photo courtesy of: http://www.houstonrr.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/ShineALight-KS-300x394.jpg

Many people believe that slavery ended in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  While this is of course true and helped to close the door on a dark period in American history, slavery is in fact still a harsh reality in today’s world.  Regarded as a form of modern day slavery, human trafficking, the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of individuals for the purpose of exploitation, is the fastest growing and most profitable area of organized crime in the world.  With approximately 20.9 million victims, human trafficking impacts children and adults alike in cities, countries, and continents all around the world.

photo courtesy of: http://www.houstonrr.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/ShineALight-KS-300x394.jpg

photo courtesy of: http://www.houstonrr.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/ShineALight-KS-300×394.jpg

The severity and continued growth of the human trafficking industry caught the attention of Congress and in 2000 they passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which declared all types of human trafficking a federal crime.  The TVPA wasn’t enacted for only prosecutorial reasons, but is also aimed at prevention through public awareness programs.  In 2003, 2005, 2008, and 2011, increasing knowledge and awareness of the issue led to developments in the act and in 2013, President Obama signed the reauthorization of the TVPA, recognizing the magnitude of the international human trafficking problem and reestablishing the important role the TVPA plays in combating it.

While the U.S. government has taken a stance against the human trafficking problem through legislation, campaigns for public awareness and educating citizens on reporting tips can urge individuals to take a stance as well. One such initiative is underway in the city of Houston, one of the principal supply and transport sites for children and adult trafficking victims due to its proximity, demographics, substantial immigrant labor force, and easy access to I-10, the number one route for human trafficking in the United States.  During the month of September, Houston’s Human Trafficking Awareness Month, Mayor Annise Parker vows to provide the pubic with informative facts about the global dilemma as well as educate individuals about ways they can help combat the problem.  Houston’s public awareness campaign, “Shine a Light on Human Trafficking,” is aimed at educating the public on how to recognize signs of human trafficking and encouraging them to report suspicious situations to the appropriate authorities.  Other states, such as Ohio, have recently pledged resources and manpower to establish public awareness campaigns in order to educate the public on the problem of human trafficking.

Long-term education and awareness campaigns like “Shine a Light on Human Trafficking” can play a big role in combating modern day slavery.  With numerous businesses such as massage parlors, escort services, salons, and modeling agencies acting as fronts for the human trafficking industry, increased awareness of the warning signs and recognition of the types of establishments that have been known to be involved in the industry can help authorities put an end to this epidemic.  Often hidden in plain sight, law enforcement agencies often rely on the public for tips to locate, dismantle, and prosecute individuals involved in these organizations.

Modern human trafficking presents the most widespread global slave trade known to mankind, with more people enslaved today than at any other time in human history. A violation of one of the most basic human rights, efforts to combat this epidemic should be tailored towards the restoration of that fundamental human right—freedom.  It is a common misconception that human trafficking presents only a vast international problem; the U.S. State Department estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 individuals are purchased and sold across international lines and borders every year, the United States included.  Making people more aware of this fact alone can help combat the human trafficking dilemma.  Awareness campaigns are invented to provide the tools needed to help bring the victims to safety and individuals involved in the human trafficking industry to justice.

For those who live in Houston and would like to take part in “Shine a Light on Human Trafficking,” the campaign will kick off at City Hall on September 24 at 6:30 p.m.