Why the mantra “Private prison bad, public prison good” doesn’t resonate

30 Aug 2016

“These institutions were built on race hate.”

by: James Kilgore

I’ve been fighting against mass incarceration ever since I got out of prison in 2009 but I’m having a hard time getting excited about the feds cutting off the contracts for a few private prisons. Although I admire all the work that has been done to stop the evildoers of CCA and the GEO Group, the mantra “state prisons good, private prisons bad” doesn’t resonate with me. There’s a few reasons for this. There’s the cold hard statistic that 92% of those behind bars are in state run facilities. But that’s not my main reason.  My main motivation is that I did most of my time in federal and state prisons. I have a hard time selling that model. Let me explain.

To begin with, I spent about three years in the California state system which was built up with no private prisons, though they have a few small ones now. But the heart and soul of the California state prisons are the nine high and medium security prisons built in the early and mid-90s. Each one of them cost between $166 and $266 million. Corcoran, Salinas Valley, Sacramento State, Pleasant Valley (one of my favorite prison names) and the spot where I lived-High Desert, the most expensive of them all.  These places are what the population refers to as “killing fields”-places where violence pervades; places where they lock you down at the drop of a hat.  Guard can’t find his coffee cup, lock everyone up; first day of deer hunting season and lots of guards call in sick, lock everyone up;  Super Bowl Sunday, lock everyone up so the guards can watch the game in peace.

These institutions were built on race hate.  The yards were (and most still are) segregated.  No people of “different races” allowed to share a cell. Phones for Black men and another set of phones for whites. Black pullup bars, white pullup bars. The Old Jim Crow, state run. Our library at High Desert had two boxes of books that had been seized by guards during cell searches.  That was it.  But when it came to paying guards to enforce carceral apartheid, no expense was spared. They’ve got a powerful, reactionary union that has fought for years for harsher sentencing laws to keep the prisons full, to keep their jobs. With virtually no discernible skills or education, they earn salaries of university professors.  With the complex overtime schemes thousands of them make over $100,000 a year. On the yards, they brag about their holiday houses, speed boats, Caribbean cruises, etc. They are living off the fat of the land known as taxpayer dollars and caged bodies. This is the state prison system that brought us Pelican Bay SHU, the notorious set of isolation cells where on dubious grounds people have been kept in solitary confinement for decades.  That’s one of the reasons the mantra “state prison good, private prison bad” doesn’t resonate with me.

Remembering Hector Quezada

Another reason it doesn’t resonate with me is that I remember Hector Quezada. I did time with Hector in Lompoc U.S. Penitentiary in California, a fed joint.  I was a teacher’s aide in the school there (actually I was the teacher because the teachers that they paid to teach sat in in the office all day and surfed the Internet). Hector was one of my prize students. At 37 years old he had a long gang history but he was grabbing the meager opportunity available, tackling simultaneous linear equations and that classic five paragraph essay in the struggle to get his GED. One day Hector was doing pullups in the yard and he felt a sharp pain in his neck. He went to the medical and they gave him Ibuprofen. His neck kept hurting and suddenly he had a hard time walking. His speech started to slur a little. He phoned his family and told them about the problem. A couple days later when things weren’t getting any better, he went back to medical. They gave him some more Ibuprofen. Early the next morning the medical staff showed up in our cell block with a gurney. They wheeled Hector’s corpse out of his cell. When his best friend tried to call his parents to let them know what had happened, authorities cut off the call and sent the friend to solitary, the “hole” as we call. He stayed there until his release. Hector’s story is part of the reason why the mantra doesn’t resonate with me.

Illinois Prisons: All State Run

Another reason is that when they released me I paroled to Illinois. When I got here I told a lot of stories about how bad California prisons were.  After a while I stopped telling those stories. Illinois has no private prisons-not a single one. But it is the most overcrowded state system in the country. It is so overcrowded that on a good day in the medium and high security joints people only get out of their cells for two hours a day.  In many of these prisons, they’ve made a move to do away with meat, opting for cheap, cheap, cheap soya substitutes which create havoc with people’s digestive systems.  In the last couple years they’ve instituted a new policy in Illinois prisons-they won’t parole you unless you have a place to live. If you are homeless, you have to do your entire parole time (usually three years) inside the prison. And they’ve cut the gate money (what you get when you are released) from $50 to $10. What you gonna do with $10?  Illinois was also the home of a solitary confinement prison known as Tamms.  People stayed in Tamms, just like in Pelican Bay, for decades for dubious reasons. They finally closed Tamms after years of activist campaigns in 2013, then moved them to other state prisons like Pontiac where their conditions remain virtually the same.

Democratic Models of Mass Incarceration

The final reason this private prison mantra doesn’t resonate with me is that I realize there are two models for mass incarceration: one driven by state prisons and one driven by private prisons. The Democrats typically lean more toward keeping prisons in state hands, having better working conditions for guards (and a union) but continuing to lock people up. The Republicans tend to favor handing prisons over to the private corporations following their mantra: private sector good, public sector bad. I am a great supporter of the public sector. The move by the Feds is in keeping with the Democratic model. They aren’t releasing anyone.

I support public schools, public ownership of utilities, a national health plan under the single payer model. I’d go for nationalizing the banks, for that matter. But when it comes to prison and the military, the results at the other end don’t look much different whether it is the public sector or the private sector in command. With the prison-industrial-complex, whether it’s public or private sector prisons we end up with way too many bodies in cages and way too many of them are Black, brown and Indigenous. When we have the military-industrial-complex, whether it is a public sector or private sector army, we end up with way too many dead bodies and way too many of them are Black, Latino, Indigenous, Middle Eastern or Asian. So I guess I’m not so excited about the feds’ announcement that they are cutting these private prison contracts.  Like everyone concerned with social justice, I will continue to oppose the very existence of the GEO Group and CCA as well as all the other corporate entities from Securus to Goldman Sachs that profit off caging bodies. But in fighting these battles we need our eye on the prize. We need less prisons and less soldiers, fewer bodies in prison jumpsuits and camouflage. Instead of fighting a war against crime or foreign enemies, let’s use those taxpayer dollars to create peace and fight poverty, inequality and climate change.  That’s what the public sector should be doing.

James Kilgore is an activist, writer and educator based in Urbana, Illinois. His forthcoming novel (September 1, 2016) is Sister Mercy’s Revenge, a crime fiction piece set in a California prison. He is also the author of Understanding Mass Incarceration : A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time and three other novels.

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