Published September 10, 2016
The candidates for attorney general touched on an important issue during a recent forum: Should Vermont continue to send prison inmates to private prisons out of state?
It’s an issue encompassing more than corrections policy. It goes to the trend all across government to farm out public business to private companies. TJ Donovan, the Democratic candidate for attorney general, put his finger on the crucial point: “It’s a fundamental basic duty of our state government to take care of people in our custody. And yes, that includes prisoners. It is not the duty of a for-profit corporation to take care of Vermonters. Their duty lies in their shareholders and making sure they are making money off of incarcerated Vermonters.”
Deborah Bucknam, the Republican candidate, was more equivocal. She said she had represented families with relatives in out-of-state prisons, and she understood the hardship they experienced. But she said the costs and benefits of sending prisoners out of state should be weighed.
At present, Vermont has housed about 250 prisoners at a private prison in Michigan. Use of out-of-state prisons grew as Vermont’s prison population ballooned. The state has turned to private prisons in Kentucky, Michigan and elsewhere because they are cheaper than building new prisons or housing them in Vermont’s existing facilities.
Nationally, the mass incarceration of prisoners in recent decades has led to the creation of large profit-making corporations that hold many thousands of inmates. But the practice has drawn criticism because the profit motive induces companies to skimp on services, including medical care. Even in Vermont’s state prisons, private companies providing medical care have done a shoddy job, with death resulting.
The privatization of public functions undermines the public mission. Vermont and other states house prisoners because it is their duty to do so. Doing so humanely is part of that duty.
Another public responsibility subject to pressure for privatization is education. Yet for-profit colleges have been guilty of major abuses — scamming students out of millions of dollars and providing poor services. Education is not a business. It is a calling. The profit motive encourages underfunding and the siphoning of money toward investors.
Briefly, President George W. Bush made it his cause to promote the privatization of Social Security. It became apparent, however, that his effort was really about allowing Wall Street to tap into the flow of retirement money going to senior citizens, not for the benefit of old people, but for the profit of Wall Street. All that money was passing from government to retirees. Why couldn’t private companies have some of it?
The real question is why they should. Private companies are sometimes thought to possess greater expertise than government, but it was the private sector that crashed the economy in 2008.
Another area where the private sector has inserted itself in damaging fashion is defense. Many of the functions of the military previously carried out by the military itself are now performed by private contractors. That includes, not only kitchen services and logistics, but security itself.
But private contractors do not have the same priorities as the government. Abuses in Iraq were legion, including abuses by privately hired torturers.
All of these changes, including private prisons, are done to save money, and also to enrich private companies. It is questionable how much public money is saved, and it is certainly questionable whether it is worth it.
Donovan is right to summon a sense of public responsibility and dedication to the public mission of our public servants. Prison guards, teachers, soldiers — all are serving a mission that goes beyond the profit motive. The state should own up to its responsibilities to its prison inmates and bring them back from Michigan. If that means expanded programs or facilities in Vermont, that is our job as a state. The excessive burden of jailing too many people might make us think twice about sentencing policies that are too punitive. We can no longer shirk our public duties.