Temple recently completed an ethics review of two of its professors, Simon Hakim and Erwin Blackstone, for accepting at least a portion of their funding from the very industry they were supposedly objectively studying—private prisons. Their study, entitled “Cost Analysis of Public and Contractor-Operated Prisons,” concluded that private prisons perform just as well as their government-owned counterparts while saving taxpayers’ money, which supports the existence and growth of the private prison industry. Big shock.
How can Temple students trust that there is value in our educations if our economics professors are quietly creating private economies between themselves and the industries they research? This case raises serious questions about academic integrity, bribery and bias in research, but the subject that Hakim and Blackstone were studying is highly concerning in and of itself.
Private prisons do not exist to house inmates, rehabilitate criminals or keep anyone safe. Like all corporations, they exist to make money. Before anything else, this is simply morally repugnant. In our capitalist economy, there is an incentive to do anything at all that can produce wealth. Imprisoning people is one of those things. For example, in 2007, two judges in Luzerne County, PA, were found to have accepted $2.6 million in kickbacks from private juvenile courts. Coincidentally, the judges convicted hundreds of children for minor offenses and sent them to the very same courts, according to JLC.org.
So how can we, as citizens, trust any arrest, conviction or sentencing as just? If someone is making money from it, then we can never be sure that decisions were made, at any stage or level, for the right reasons.
But how can a profit be made from housing people, feeding them and giving them healthcare? Don’t all of those things cost money, rather than produce it? Yes, they do, so you can see how from a CEO’s perspective it makes a lot of sense to provide those services as cheaply as possible. Their business plan begins to look something like this: Spend as little money as humanly possible while generating as much money as humanly possible, per inmate.
Sounds pretty solid to me. But how do they make money off the inmates at all?
First of all, they can receive government money—that’s right, even private prisons can be state funded, nullifying the idea that private prisons save taxpayers’ money. In Arizona, for instance, private prisons have contracts with the state government guaranteeing that their facilities will be filled to capacity, or else the state must pay the prison. More demand for prisoners.
The most lucrative part of owning a prison, however, is contracting. Prisons use inmates as workers in factories making furniture, textiles and clothes, in plants recycling electronics, in customer service call centers for various companies and more. Companies contract with the prisons, not the workers/prisoners, to be able to harness this captive and incredibly cheap workforce.
According to Temple African American Studies professor Dr. Heather Thompson’s article, “The Prison Industrial Complex: A Growth Industry in a Shrinking Economy,” prisons had to pay inmate-workers the minimum wage until 1995, when a law was passed that allowed them to reallocate funds originally intended to be workers’ wages.
According to Thompson, inmates across the country in both privately and state owned facilities make between $0.12 and $1.15 per hour. Inmates do not have a choice if they work while incarcerated, or what kind of work they do. Unlike workers on the outside, they cannot choose not to apply for a job because it pays too little, they cannot request a raise and they cannot move up the chain of command.
So this workforce has no power to quit and only costs employers a fraction of the already meager minimum wage. Additionally, companies can use prison labor to avoid shipping costs from cheap labor facilities overseas, and they even get to stamp “Made in the USA” on their products. Clearly, there is much incentive for companies to utilize this source of labor.
The Temple News reported that the university has completed its investigation on Hakim and Blackstone, but will not publicly release the results. Personally, I don’t have faith in the accuracy of what this investigation will yield without public pressure forcing the administration to take it seriously. Colorofchange.org created a petition to show the administration that students, the larger academic community and allies to the incarcerated demand a thorough investigation and that these professors be held accountable to us all.
Sarah Giskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SarahBGisky.