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US justice goes commercial

Published time: May 26, 2011 06:56
Edited time: May 26, 2011 11:41

With well over two million people in jail, the US has the highest prison population in the world. But some are seeing the inside of a cell because dodgy judges are getting kickbacks from the private sector.

­Two Pennsylvania judges have made a killing on juvenile prisons. Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan were convicted of receiving payoffs of more than two million dollars from the developers of several private detention centers.

According to parents, however, the real crime is that these judges sent more than 5,000 children to those very facilities for crimes as small as fighting on a school bus or posting a parody of their teacher on the web.

Sandy Fonzo’s 17-year-old son Edward was a promising student and sportsman when he was arrested at an underage party. Judge Ciavarella locked him up for six months. Shortly after he got out, Edward committed suicide.

“He never looked into the whole picture of the kids,” Sandy Fonzo explains. “He lined them up one by one and he sent them away, shackled them, sent them to places [where] god knows what went on, and then he throws them back. How does a kid deal with that? My son just never recovered from it.”

Ciavarella sent a 12-year-old boy to jail for two years for scratching his mom’s car while joy-riding. He also locked up a teenager for several months over throwing a piece of steak at his mother’s boyfriend.

“I could not believe that I could be sent away for something as stupid as throwing a steak,” the young man said later.

The case of the two Pennsylvania judges being in bed with local private prisons could be just the tip of the iceberg. A recent report revealed America’s largest prison corporations pour hundreds of thousands into the campaigns of governors, state legislators and judges in the hope of advancing their agenda. And it seems to be working.

The number of private prisons in the US is growing rapidly.

“All their money, every penny they get is tax payer dollars they get from the government,” an activist Paul Wright explains. “So, what they do is, they get the money from the government to house prisoners and they turn around and spend some of that money by giving it back to the politicians that pushed the laws and the policies that lead to both more people being incarcerated and more people being incarcerated in private prisons. So, it’s almost money laundering of tax dollars.”

And as the number of prisons increases, so to does the number of prisoners. The US has 2.3 million people behind bars, more than any other country in the world. China, which is four times more populous than the United States, is a distant second, with 1.6 million people in prison.

“You’ve seen prison populations pretty consistently, over the last three decades, move up a couple percent a year…and, unfortunately, as a citizen, that’s not the most exciting statistic. However, when you look at it from a business model perspective, for the private operators, it’s clearly good news”, T.C. Robillard, a managing director at Signal Hill investment banking firm, said in his CNBC interview.

The good news for the prison industrial complex turned into a nightmare for thousands of underage victims of the two judges in Pennsylvania.

“There is an incentive in private industry, obviously, to make money, that’s what private industry is for,” Barry Dyller explains. “So, there’s an incentive to have more prisoners and incentive to keep those prisoners incarcerated for longer periods of time. There’s really no incentive for rehabilitation, incentives are reversed.”

The so-called cash-for-kids case in Pennsylvania showed just how backwards the incentives can be, and raised the question: with judges interested in sending people away for longer terms and keeping their benefactors’ private prisons full, what justice can one count on?

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