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Letter: Public vs. private prisons

At Reagan Airport a billboard informs "America - Home of 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's prison population." Are we really the world's worst? Apparently, since China and Russia together have fewer prisoners than the 2.3 million incarcerated in America's public and private prisons.

Private prisons have had an intermittent history in America. England exported debtors to prison in Georgia in the 1730s. Following the Civil War prisoners were used to compensate for the emancipated slaves but the current use of private prisons dates to the 1980s. Previously the public prisons had sometimes contracted out health or food services to private firms but with the addition of new laws dealing with the "war on drugs" and the "three strikes" law, prisons began to burst at the seams and contractors saw an opportunity to make a larger profit by running the whole prison. Of the various prisons for profit companies, Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) is the largest with 66 prisons and GEO with 61.

The selling point is that these prisons are more efficiently run and therefore cheaper, which is a questionable fact. One reason for this is that the public prison employees belong to unions and are better paid than corporation employees. The public guards with higher pay and benefits are also better trained with more experience. Private guards tend not to stay. One result of this disparity is that there are 65 percent more assaults against both guards and other prisoners in private prisons. Another result is that medical treatment is limited in private prisons.

An example of the difficult conditions is the CCA prison in Idaho which is commonly called the Gladiator School. There are more assaults there than Idaho's eight public prisons combined. A former employee at the prison said that the prisoners had to learn to fight or die. He added that they are commodities -- something necessary to fill the beds for profit.

It's an upside-down world when corporations are people and people are commodities.

Barbara M. Edwards