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Prisons for Profit: Under Kasich, Ohio Becomes Laboratory for Privatizing Public Jails

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Ohio holds the distinction of being the first state to sell off a public prison to a private corporation. This happened in 2011 when Governor John Kasich oversaw the sale of Lake Erie Correctional Institution to the Corrections Corporation of America. The sale was promoted as a way to save the state money, but according to the ACLU of Ohio, the plan largely backfired. We speak to Mike Brickner, senior policy director at the ACLU of Ohio. The group released a report and short documentary film called “Prisons for Profit.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Westerville, Ohio, from OTV. That’s Otterbein University Television. I’m Amy Goodman. Ohio holds the distinction of being the first state to sell off a public prison to a private corporation. This happened in 2011, when Ohio Governor John Kasich oversaw the sale of Lake Erie Correctional Institution to the CCA. That’s the Corrections Corporation of America. The sale was promoted as a way to save the state money, but according to the ACLU of Ohio, the plan largely backfired. The ACLU recently produced a short documentary titled Prisons for Profit. This is Conneaut City Councilman Neil LaRusch commenting on what happened after the Lake Erie Correctional Institution was sold.

COUNCILMEMBER NEIL LARUSCH: This prison grew by 300 in the first couple months. We took a tour of the prison shortly after the sale, and they were doubling bunks, and they were getting ready for this huge influx of people. And right then, you can see that there’s obviously going to be a problem with the limited number of corrections officers that you have out there compared with this huge and growing number of inmates that you have. So, did we think it was going to be a problem? Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: Prisons for Profit. Joining us now from Cleveland, Ohio, is Mike Brickner, senior policy director at the ACLU of Ohio. Can you talk about the report you put out, the report you’ve released on private prisons, and why Ohio is so central in this country?

MIKE BRICKNER: Good morning, Amy. Thanks for having me.

So, we were the first state in the country to sell a public prison to a private corporation, Corrections Corporation of America, under Governor Kasich’s first budget in 2011. And to quote candidate Trump, it has been nothing short of a disaster ever since then. And as Councilman LaRusch explained in the clip, a big reason for that is because the very first thing that CCA did was that they added more and more beds into the prison, making it dangerously overcrowded. And so, in the first several months that it was open, we saw that assaults within the prison, on both staff and prisoners, more than doubled. We saw drugs proliferate throughout the prison, and we had reports of people outside of the prison throwing duffel bags full of drugs over the fence so that prisoners could sell them inside without any sort of search or trying to stop that process.

And then we also saw where prisoners were living in terrible, squalid conditions, where state investigators were going into the prison and finding that many prisoners did not have access to running water and were doing things like using plastic bags to defecate in. But unfortunately, that’s the reality. When prisoners become dollar signs, these private corporations, they don’t have good conditions, they don’t invest in rehabilitation, they don’t invest in good staff. And we see it time and again where those prisons degenerate and become big public safety concerns.

AMY GOODMAN: Why was—is Ohio such a testing ground for private prisons?

MIKE BRICKNER: Well, when Governor Kasich first came into office, he was for privatization of just about everything, and prisons very quickly came into the crosshairs. And I think a lot of that was pushed by the large overincarceration problem we have here in the state of Ohio. We have the sixth-largest prison population in the country. Our prisons are at over 130 percent capacity. And I think Governor Kasich thought, “Well, if I privatize a few prisons, maybe I can save some money in the state budget.”

But we know that that is absolutely the wrong way to go, that private prison companies have lobbyists that they can go and lobby for stricter criminal and immigration laws that will fill prisons, and that that’s in their interest, because, again, prisoners equal dollar signs for these companies. It is in their interest to have more people in prison, and they want people who are low-level and nonviolent, because those are the people that are easier for them to take care of and that they can make a greater profit on. And so, since we’ve introduced those prisons, those private prisons, here in the state, we’ve actually seen where our prison population has continued to grow, and we’re looking at new record populations here in the state of Ohio.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve expressed concern, Mike Brickner, about Governor Kasich’s relationship, well, with Lehman Brothers, when he worked for them. Talk about that.

MIKE BRICKNER: Absolutely. So, Governor Kasich, I think, as most of your viewers know, was an executive at Lehman Brothers. And in the early 2000s, CCA, Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison operator, was going through some significant financial issues. And Lehman Brothers was the company who came in and bailed CCA out. Then, when Governor Kasich came into office, the hired lobbyist for CCA here in the state of Ohio was Governor Kasich’s former top congressional aide. And so, we know that they enjoy a very close relationship with one another, despite it not being in the best interests of our criminal justice system or the taxpayers here in Ohio.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Brickner, can you talk about late 2014, the Federal Bureau of Prisons canceling their Youngstown federal contract?

MIKE BRICKNER: Absolutely. So, unfortunately, private prisons are not a new problem here in the state of Ohio. We had a federal private prison that was actually opened in the late ’90s in Youngstown, Ohio. When it first opened, it was filled with problems. In the first year that it was operating, they had over a dozen stabbings, several murders and escapes. So bad it was that the city of Youngstown had to file a lawsuit against CCA just to get them to comply with basic safety standards. The prison had to shut down for a while. It reopened and seemed to be doing better, but then, in the last few years, we got more and more reports of major problems out of that prison, where prisoners were alleging severe racial discrimination, terrible conditions, no access to rehabilitative programs. It got so bad that the prisoners there actually staged a protest on the yard and refused to come into the prison, to protest those terrible conditions, sending that prison into chaos. And in the wake of that, the Federal Bureau of Prisons canceled its contract with that prison, so that they will no longer be housing their federal prisoners with that private prison company.

AMY GOODMAN: Overall, the whole issue of prison privatization, how do you think it is been addressed, if at all, in the presidential race in 2016?

MIKE BRICKNER: Well, unfortunately, I think that it has been missing too much from the conversation. I think that we have a lot of candidates who are talking about criminal justice reform, including Governor Kasich. And Governor Kasich has supported some modest criminal justice reforms here in the state, and we supported him in that, as well. But you can’t be for reform of the criminal justice system while also being in support of private prisons. As we’ve seen here in the state of Ohio, even when we have enacted some modest criminal justice reform to try and get people who shouldn’t be in prison out of prison, if you’re also at the same time privatizing our prisons, that totally undermines that work and will lead to more people being in prison.

And unfortunately, here in the state of Ohio, we haven’t learned our lesson. Last year, in a legislative maneuver, our state Legislature passed a new provision that allows a second prison to be sold here in the state of Ohio. So even though we have not had success with our privatized prisons, we’re seeing record numbers of prisoners in our state prison system. We are once again heading down this bad path.

And so, I think that privatization has to be part of the national conversation. So long as we have a profit interest in our criminal justice system, we will only see it grow. And that has led us in the wrong direction here as a country. Every dollar we’re spending in prisons are dollars we’re not spending on roads, on education, on social services that will actually raise people up. And so, we have to take a stand against the private prison industry, get people out of our prisons and start reinvesting in things that work.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, Mike Brickner of the ACLU of Ohio. We’ll link your report on private prisons.

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