Columbia University to Divest Its Investments in Private Prisons: Why? See Orange is the New Black

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*This contains light spoilers for season three of OITNB. The photographs are NOT spoilers.


Orange is the New Black’s third season throws light (shade) on the for-profit prison industry and its twisted impact on our criminal justice system. If it creeped you out to watch OITNB’s business casually chatting about stocking the prisons the same way they talk about stocking a grocery store, you are not alone. Columbia University just became the first American college to divest itself from investments in private prisons. Student activists discovered the University had investments of at least $10 million in private prison companies and worked to get the school to divest.

How insidious is the private prison industry? A 2014 report by the In the Public Interest (ITPI) revealed the private prison corporations have deals with the states to guarantee certain occupancy levels. The guarantee comes in the form of state laws and prison policies increasing making sure more people go to prison and stay there longer. 65 percent of the private prison contracts ITPI reviewed included occupancy clauses “in the form of quotas or required payments for empty prison cells (a “low-crime tax”).” How does this work in practice? Arizona has to make sure its prisons have a 90 percent occupancy rate or else pay the private prison company for “unused beds.” Colorado has seen a precipitous drop in the crime rate, but this has come at a price of $2 million to state taxpayers, who have to pay a penalty to the private prison groups. (There’s that “low-crime tax” at work.) Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), America’s largest purveyor of for-profit prisons, even offered to take over the entire state correctional system in exchange for a 20-year contract promising 90-100 percent occupancy.

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Cutting corners is the name of the game for private prisons and it has often had disastrous consequences on the health, safety and welfare of inmates and guards. Some officers are replaced by mall cops who get paid as little as $10.00 an hour to work in high risk, high stress environments. As we’ve seen on OITNB, turning guards loose on a prison with just a few hours of training is a recipe for disaster. As OITNB accurately depicted, the prison environment gives guards an opportunity to exploit and abuse prisoners.

For example, Hawaii sent female prisoners to a CCA facility in Eastern Kentucky in order to save money -the state saved nearly $18.00 a day! But the Otter Creek Correctional Center fostered an environment where guards had sex with inmates and several guards were convicted of rape and sexual assault. The number of sexual assaults at the facility was four times higher than they were at the state-run women’s prison.

Private companies have also moved into the system to take over things like food, commissary and medical care. Aramark served maggot-infested food to Ohio inmates and brought in food service workers who had sex with inmates. Ohio fined the company more than $275,000, but the contract is worth more than $100 million and it will still be renewed.

A private prison in Mississippi, the Walnut Grove youth facility, was excoriated by a federal court in 2006 for allowing “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate.” The conditions in the youth prison included systematic beatings and rapes of children as young as 13 years old.

If I listed every horrifying situation involving the private prison industry, this article would be 100 pages long. I would never argue that state and federal prisons are free of unconscionable conditions. But we have 20 years of data proving that private prisons are worse in every area. They do nothing for society but make money from other people’s suffering.

As for OITNB, the show should be applauded for the realism it brings to this debate. Other TV shows are rightly criticized for turning sexual assault into a kind of crime porn, but OITNB had to do the story it pursued involving an inmate being raped by a guard, because these scenarios are unfortunately commonplace in our system.

Alex is a lawyer and opinionated.

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