In December, the federal Bureau of Prisons ended all its contracts with private operators of its facilities. The move followed an executive order by President Biden, which he positioned as ending the practice of profiteering off of prisoners and their families.
But as an inmate in FCI Danbury (a low-security federal prison in Connecticut), I can’t help but find such claims hypocritical. First, only about 20% of us were held in so-called private prisons anyway. (I say “so called” because they weren’t private in any real sense. The government gave taxpayer funds to a company to run those facilities. Compare that to a truly private company like Home Depot that provides goods under its own direction.) Second, I immediately thought, “Public prisons profit off of us every day!”
Before I lay out the ways in which this happens, it’s worth mentioning that every inmate I’ve met who spent time at prison run by CCA (one of the two companies that dominated the private prison market) has told me it was much better overall than the BOP-run facilities. (And if you want to know just how bad the latter are, read the More Than Our Crimes report, Voices from Within.)
According to a report from the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) on the cost of state and federal incarceration in fiscal year 2019, governments spent an average of $35,347 per inmate that year, or about $107 per day. But where did that money go and how was it used?
Predictably, the largest portion was spent on salaries, despite the fact that the BOP’s few major rehabilitation programs have wait lists in the thousands. According to the PPI, the payroll for corrections employees is over 100 times higher than the profits generated by private prisons. In contrast, when we can get a job (we are the ones who do the “grunt” work needed to maintain prison buildings), inmates earn an average of 13 to 52 cents per hour. (That’s about the range in my prison; people here earn on average $12-$30 a month.)
And if a prison has a UNICOR factory (the BOP’s for-profit company), the inmates who get those jobs manufacture goods that bring in a profit of almost half a billion per year. Yet even these prisoners are paid just 23 cents to $1 an hour. If a private company paid its employees such a minimal wage, there would be justified outrage. In fact, that would never work in the private sector because no free citizen would consent to work at that rate even without minimum-wage laws. Only the federal government can get away with a profit-making scheme as morally repugnant as this.
Health care and housing
Health care is the next largest expense, although the More Than Our Crimes report is packed with accounts of prisoners begging for diagnostic tests and treatment. Yet we are charged a co-pay of $2 for non-preventive care. (Sounds low, I know, but remember how much we are paid.)
Following health care is “construction”—or the cost of the buildings themselves. Let me help you picture what “housing” is like for us. At FCI Danbury, we live in what is laughably called “open-bay dorms”: I am assigned approximately 12 square feet of living space that I share with another adult man. The cells have two-man bunks about 4 and a half feet apart. My cellie’s bunk touches my locker and when I have to get something out of it, I bump up against his bed. It is extremely awkward and uncomfortable living on top of people in this manner. To maximize the $35k it gets for each of us a year, this prison packs as many inmates as it can into as small a space as it can. And that’s ok, since it seems the BOP thinks of us as cattle rather than humans.
Next in line is food, which the PPI estimates accounts for only $2.62 a day. That paltry amount explains why the portions of food we get are smaller than an elementary school lunch. And the quality is poor; sometimes, the fruit is even rotten. That means we need to buy additional food , as well as hygiene products and clothing, at the commissary (prison store), another profit-making machine. According to the PPI, commissary vendors make $1.6 billion a year. And most of that profit comes from family and friends who send money to our accounts, so we don’t starve. The companies that stock the commissaries share a percentage of their revenue with the BOP.
By many criteria, state prisons provide much more to inmates than the BOP. For example, in New York state prisons, inmates can receive monthly care packages from family or friends made up of food, hygiene products, stationery and clothes weighing up to 35 pounds. And the price isn’t marked up to provide the prison a profit. That’s probably why the federal prison system doesn’t offer it.
Phone calls and emails are another area in which public prisons make money. Outside of prison, private phone companies compete, keeping prices low and providing options to consumers. In prison, one company has a monopoly contract with the government to ensure exorbitant costs for inmates and their families. It can cost between $3.15 for one 15-minute call or up to $20 for a 30-minute call in some places. In federal prison, we’re allowed only 500 minutes a month, adding up to $94.50 if we use all of them (calls are limited to 15 minutes, totaling $3.15 each). (Since the start of COVID, calls have been free, but when the public health emergency ends on May 11, the fees will return.)
The BOP allows us to email as well, using the private Corrlinks system. However, we’re charged 5 cents per minute to use the service. I personally spend between $20-30 a month on email. Where’s the outrage from the president over this profiteering scheme?
Recently, the BOP began rolling out tablets at a cost of $119. They can be plugged into a (no Wi-Fi) computer to upload music for $1.20-$1.55 a tune. Where outside of prison do songs cost this much? Or, if we’re flush with money, we can buy a video game for $3.55, or rent a movie for $4.70. (Outside of prison, on Amazon, the cost to rent “The Dark Knight Rises” is only $3.99.) Tablets are just the newest phase in the money-grabbing scheme concocted by the BOP.
The 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution bans slavery and involuntary servitude except as a punishment for a crime. That one line provides all the ammunition the government needs for public prisons to profit off the incarcerated. Here’s the thing, though: Almost everyone who’s in prison will get out someday. Most of us would like to leave hopeful and prepared to be law-abiding, working members of society. The best way to achieve this is to treat us with dignity and decency. The government could start by repealing the part of the Constitution that allows involuntary servitude and ending the myriad profit-making schemes enacted by public prisons.
But I’m not holding my breath.