A federal judge ruled last week that inmates at a private prison in Mississippi will be allowed to file a class-action suit against the prison. Inmates at the prison—East Mississippi Correctional Facility—have complained of various issues, ranging from squalid conditions and lack of medical care to excessive force used by prison guards. The facility is run by Management & Training Corporation, which operates 24 prisons nationwide, including three others in Mississippi. One of those three, Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, has also been plagued in the past by issues of violence between and against inmates.
The issues at East Mississippi and Walnut Grove are not unique. Private prisons across the country have been inundated with accusations of mistreatment of prisoners and poor conditions. Moreover, privatization represents just one way in which special interests are exerting a negative influence on the administration of prisons. Prison guard unions have also done a good deal of harm to the state of justice in America’s correctional facilities. That both private prisons and guards unions are seeking to make a profit off of the incarceration of Americans is unethical. Further, it exacerbates the problems that our criminal justice system ought to solve, rather than helping improve the situation.
Both of these special interest groups focus on priorities that disregard the adequate treatment of prisoners. Public officials typically claim that the purpose of privatizing correctional facilities is a desire to cut costs; the problem lies in the companies’ desire to reduce expenses in order to maximize their profits. Profit-driven prisons often have a tendency to lower wages for prison staff, to make less frequent improvements to infrastructure, and to provide substantially poorer quality of medical care—all factors that lead to worse prison conditions and greater incidents of prisoner violence.
Similarly, the power of guard unions, which works to the benefit of prison guards’ salaries, often has a detrimental effect on prisons and prisoners. For example, the California Correction Peace Officer’s Association has long supported tougher sentencing laws in an attempt to increase the number of prisoners, and thus prison guards; some argue that the union’s political influence has prevented prison reform, even when the union has faced accusations of cover-ups of guard abuse. Similarly, the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association has repeatedly fought fiercely to protect union members accused of prisoner abuse from dismissal.
The examples of these two prison guard unions show clearly the ways in which special interest groups act counter to the interests of the public good. Our criminal justice system is meant to correct wrongful behavior and encourage future good behavior; it is not supposed to be a place for abuse or neglect. Neither prison guard unions nor private prison companies adhere to this goal—instead, they act for their own betterment. No longer should they serve an outsized role in this nation’s criminal justice system.
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