Across the country, politicians have been selling off public assets to private businesses in exchange for hefty campaign contributions and sweetheart deals.  The politicians claim they are saving tax dollars, but when the real costs are examined, it’s only the corporations – who back them financially at election time – who are making a financial killing on the deals.  This kind of corrupt pay-back to wealthy corporate-CEOs has produced numerous disasters for taxpayers, who end up paying more in the long run.

Nowhere has this “pay and play” scandal been more outrageous than in the recurring efforts of some governors to privatize their state prisons.  They sell the prisons to private contractors – including the GEO Group, Corrections Corporation of America, and the Management & Training Corporation – who then cut corners on safety, health and services.  Some contractors refuse to take the most hardened criminals or those who are in need of medical and psychological services.  Even without those prisoners, they run up costs to increase their profits

All too often, private prisons cause more problems than they solve. For-profit prisons have significantly higher rates of inmate-on-guard assault, violence and escapes in broad daylight.  One reason for the increase in violence is the habit of the profiteers to discharge the highly-trained staff and replace them with low-wage, low-skilled employees who are unable to meet the demands of staffing corrections facilities that house some of society’s most dangerous felons.  Even in minimum-risk facilities, the privateers increase the danger to prisoners and the community when they make cuts to increase profits. 

Judge Greg Mathis recently made that point in an article discussing a suit against GEO Group – brought by dozens of family members of inmates at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Jackson, Miss.  The families contend that the corporation forces the prisoners – two thirds of whom are non-violent offenders – to live “in sub-standard conditions, where they are subject to excessive force from staff and are sexually preyed upon by other inmates and staff.”  As Judge Mathis notes, one young man, 21-year old Mike McIntosh II, was so brutally injured in one incident that he now suffers from short-term memory loss and has lost the function of his right arm and right leg.
Moreover, the politicians pushing privatization are not honest with citizens.  They make false claims about savings. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich proposed selling five of the state’s prison properties, claiming the sale would bring in revenue of $200 million, with no facts or guarantees offered to the taxpayers.

In fact, the real money was made by Kasich cronies who worked in cahoots with the prison privateers.  As columnist Joe Hallet noted in the Columbus Dispatch last month:  “Well before Kasich’s budget proposed privatizing five state prisons, his best friend, newly minted lobbyist Donald G. Thibaut, and two of the governor’s closest policy advisers, lobbying partners Robert F. Klaffky and Douglas J. Preisse, had signed up the nation’s two largest private prison operators as clients.”

Kasich is not alone in trying to sell state prisons to benefit campaign cronies and contributors.  In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott plans to put every Department of Corrections facility in the 18 counties of Southern Florida on the market, producing a windfall for the GEO Group, which has contributed more than $1 million to the Florida GOP.  If GEO Group does what it has done in other states, potentially more than 5,000 experienced and qualified state corrections officers may find themselves replaced by unskilled, low-wage workers.  Scott can claim that he is reducing costs, but experience demonstrates that any savings are short-lived.  In the end, the costs will be higher for Florida’s taxpayers, as the private companies demand more taxpayer funds to boost their profits to pay their stockholders and fund lucrative salaries for their CEOs and top managers.

At long last, however, some state legislators are standing up to the politicians who are selling  prisons to their campaign supporters.  Last week, for example, legislators defeated Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s plan to give corporations some of the state’s prisons, at fire-sale prices.  On June 6, the Louisiana House Appropriations Committee voted down a Jindal supported bill that would allow the State Department of Public Safety and Corrections to look into selling several prisons.  That’s a victory for the taxpayers of Louisiana. 

But all too often in recent years, the prison privateers have been winning these fights, even as the evidence mounts that they jeopardize prison security and don’t save money. It’s time taxpayers in other states let their voices be heard.  Contact your legislators and tell them to oppose expensive and unnecessary privatization schemes.

Lee Saunders

Lee Saunders

Lee Saunders is the President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, which represents 1.6 million members. He was elected at the union’s 40th International Convention in June 2012.

Saunders was previously elected Secretary-Treasurer at the union’s 39th International Convention in July 2010.

Saunders grew up in a union household in Cleveland, Ohio. This inspired him to join the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association (OCSEA) when he began working for the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services in 1975. His father was a bus driver and a member of the Amalgamated Transit Union. His mother was a community organizer and, after raising two sons, returned to college and became a community college professor and a member of the American Association of University Professors.

Saunders began his career with AFSCME in 1978 as a labor economist. He has served in the capacities of Assistant Director of Research and Collective Bargaining Services, Director of Community Action and Deputy Director of Organizing and Field Services. Saunders also served as Executive Assistant to the President of AFSCME and was responsible for managing what is acknowledged to be one of the most effective political and legislative operations in the history of the American labor movement. AFSCME’s clout in fundraising and member mobilization, and its lobbying expertise are unmatched in the ranks of the AFL-CIO and beyond.

Building on ideas generated by local unions, Saunders has championed AFSCME’s Next Wave initiative to encourage and develop the next generation of union leadership. He has also developed and supported programs that foster diversity and promote increased member participation within the union.

He has served as administrator of a number of AFSCME councils and large local unions across the country. For nearly four years, he served as Administrator of AFSCME District Council 37, New York City’s largest public employee union, representing 125,000 members. In that capacity, he was successful in restoring the fiscal health, integrity and good name of the council and its 56 affiliated local unions.

Saunders serves as a Vice President of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, which guides the daily work of the labor federation. He is an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee, Treasurer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and a member of the Executive Committee of the Congressional Black Caucus Institute’s 21st Century Committee. He also serves on the Board of the National Action Network.

He received a Master of Arts degree from Ohio State University in 1974, a year after earning his Bachelor of Arts degree from Ohio University. In 2002, the College of New Rochelle awarded him an honorary doctorate degree in Humane Letters.

Saunders and his wife Lynne live in Washington, DC, and have two sons, Lee, Jr. and Ryan.