In the US 8% of prisons are operated by for-profit corporations. That number is quickly rising and with it a host of ethical concerns. GEO Group is the second largest contractor in the US and has an increasing international presence. In this paper I evaluate the practices of GEO Group through the philosophical perspective of utilitarianism, which seeks to increase total happiness and reduce suffering. Is the company helping the US government be more efficient or is it profiting off the incarcerated?
Check out the related video and read the attached paper to learn more.
Paper, repasted by Jordi:
GEO Group: Questioning the Utility of For-Profit Prisons
Utilitarianism is a theory of normative ethics holding that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes utility; which is to increase total benefit and reduce suffering (Driver). In this paper I will be applying the utilitarian lens of ethics to GEO Group which is the second largest operator of privatized prisons in the US and a company that has an increasing presence abroad. The main parties impacted are the general population and the inmates in prison. Prisons have three primary functions which are to protect society from the most violent offenders, fairly punish and rehabilitate other inmates, and do so in an effective way in order to reduce government spending and lessen the burden on taxpayers.
The primary question I seek is answer is: Do the practices of GEO Group maximize happiness and reduce suffering? I will take into account both the impact on civilians and the incarcerated. Proponents of privatization argue that market based competition provides benefits to the government and taxpayers because it rewards efficiency and innovative practices. By cutting out bureaucracy private firms provide better service at a lower rate. They argue that allegations of poor conditions, inmate abuse and poor oversight are rare and are often overstated. Critics on the other hand argue that the for-profit business model of prisons encourages operators to minimize expenses in inmate services and staffing which impair safety and undermine prisoners’ human rights. However, before I delve into ethical issues and apply consequentialist reasoning to GEO Group it is important to first understand the company.
GEO Group Overview
GEO Group is the second largest for-profit prison in the nation. It has locations in 25 states and operates approximately 115 correctional, detention and mental health facilities with 81,000 beds. The company has operations in Australia, Canada, South Africa and the UK; however, the US makes up 85% of total revenue. Also, contracts from the US Federal Government alone accounts for 45% of total revenue (Hoovers).
Recently, GEO Group has pursued aggressive growth through acquisition. It acquired Municipal Corrections Finance with 11 properties and 10,000 beds for $27 million and merged with Cornell Companies in 2010 for $685 million which played a major part in its current size. In a bold strategic move it acquired B.I. Incorporated (BI) for $415 million. BI makes compliance technology and electronic monitoring services. Currently, many courts in the US are moving away from jail time and toward supervised release and treatment, so the acquisition is a move to capitalize on that trend (Shahani). It seems that their strategy has been paying off; in 2013 GEO Group had Operating Income of $185 million off of $1,522 million of revenue. In the period from 2008-2012 CEO George Zoley was paid $22 million in compensation. The company even tentatively purchased the naming rights to the football stadium at Florida Atlantic University for $6 million before withdrawing the offer due to public outcry.
Ethical Issues at GEO Group
A common critique of the for-profit prison industry is that a firm’s goal of maximizing profits are at odds with the goal of the justice system which is to aid in prisoner rehabilitation, reduce repeat offenses, and increase public safety. In an effort to bolster profits GEO Group has cut the number and reduced the quality of staff at prisons, it has provided poor medical attention and in some cases failed to regularly feed inmates. The results are dangerous prisons where inmates are denied basic rights and are often abused. Also, there has been evidence of a close relationship between GEO Group and federal and state governments that can be constituted as a conflict of interest. Along with this there is an attitude of “build it and they will come” where GEO Group has built prisons in anticipation of receiving a contract.
Over the past decade there have been a number of high profile cases that bring into question the ethical and professional standards of both GEO Group and the wider industry of for profit prisons. For example, in 2007 the firm was sued and settled with the family of LeTisha Tapia for $200,000. Tapia committed suicide after being locked into the same cell as male inmates where she was beaten and raped. The family’s lawyer and advocate from the Texas Civil Rights Project commented, “GEO cuts corners by hiring poorly trained guards, providing inmates with cut rate medical care, and running their facility in a grossly unprofessional manner (Fischer 3).”
In 2008 civil liberty attorneys in Washington, DC sued GEO Group for failing to provide adequate medical attention to federal inmates that had been outsourced to prisons in Rivers Correctional Institute in North Carolina. One inmate claims he was denied medical treatment for a cavity until the tooth became infected where an ulcer formed and burst requiring surgery and hospitalization. A lawyer on the suit and an attorney with DC Prisoners Project, Deborah Golden commented, “Pretty immediately when people started going to Rivers we started getting letters about how bad the health care was, and just how people were really scared of dying there… The more we looked into the situation the more we realized it was a systematic problem. I suspect that it’s a pattern all over. When you try to run prisons as money makers what you do is cut back on the most expensive thing you can, which is medication and medical care (Fischer 3).” The two aforementioned cases demonstrate poor management and corner cutting by GEO Group. However, the 2010-2012 case at Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility (Walnut Grove YCF) in Mississippi demonstrates blatant negligence, abuse and corruption.
In 2010 a federal lawsuit was filed against GEO Group for abuse and negligence at Walnut Grove YCF. A subsequent investigation found that prison guards engaged in sex with prisoners, smuggled drugs into the facilities and some even had gang affiliation. Also, inmate on inmate violence was rampant and prison authorities often denied inmates basic rehabilitation programs and medical care. Former inmate Justin Bowling who was incarcerated for 17 months for marijuana possession commented, “A lot of time the guards are in the same gang. If the inmates wanted something done, they got it. If they wanted a cell popped open to handle some business about fighting or something like that, it just pretty much happened (Burnett 3).” The state audit revealed that the guard to inmate ratio in the center was 1 to 60. That’s a full 5 times higher than the national average of 1 to 12.
Subsequent investigations also found that former Walnut Grove YCF warden and Walnut Grove town mayor William Sims had moved a female inmate to a motel for sex and then pressured her to lie about it. Sims also owned 18 vending machines inside the facility and was previously quoted with saying, “I wouldn’t interfere with the way they’re operating it. They’ve done an excellent job (Burnett 7).”
The investigation also raised further structurally related ethical questions between the company and local government. To put it into perspective, Walnut Grove is a small town with little industry and the prison provided nearly 200 jobs. Also, the prison pays the local government $15,000 a month in lieu of taxes which comprises 15% of its annual budget. On top of that GEO Group pays Walnut Grove Correctional Authority, the group that monitors the prison, $4,500 a month and pays the center’s inspector salary. There is clearly a conflict of interest (Burnett 8). The government inspector is being paid by the corporation that he is supposed to hold accountable. Mississippi State Representative Earle Banks, chairman of the state Juvenile Justice Committee stated, “All the community is just making so much money off Walnut Grove (YCF) that no one wants to upset the applecart. Then that means they’re not gonna make money anymore (Burnett 8).” It seems that Walnut Grove YCF received little oversight because no one wanted to mess with the golden goose. The info graph from Bloomberg in Appendix 1 shows how the three most violent prisons in Mississippi, Walnut Grove YCF being number one, were operated by private contractors.
Question of Utility
Clearly there are many ethical concerns with GEO Group, which demonstrate that their practices do not increase total utility. Again, this can be assessed by taking into account the needs of all the stakeholders who are the American citizens and the incarcerated. Utilitarianism is distinguished by impartiality so the happiness of both law abiding citizens and the incarcerated is weighted the same. Effective jail and corrections should first protect the public from the most violent offenders, second justly punish and rehabilitate other inmates and lastly do so in a way that is economically efficient. I will address each of these points individually. On the question of protecting the public from the most violent offenders it breaks even with government run facilities. During my research I did not come across any articles about notable break outs from GEO Group facilities. However, part of this might be due to the fact that GEO Group does not operate many maximum security prisons.
The issues of rehabilitating inmates and doing so in an economically efficient way are interwoven and form the crux of the problem. When GEO Group is awarded a contract they are often paid a fixed amount of money either per facility or inmate. The company does not get rewarded for creating better conditions and providing inmates with skills that are useful once they leave prison through rehabilitation programs. There is little financial incentive for having better services, rather it is in their interest to actively lobby and campaign for harsher criminal laws and penalties. GEO Group has lobbyists in 17 states and has made campaign contributions to over 400 candidates (ACLU). Industry expert Lucas Anderson comments, “The profit motive also encourages private prison companies to disregard the principles inmate rehabilitation and criminal deterrence; if advanced these principles would undermine profit and reduce the demand for these companies’ services. Finally, to expand their markets, private prison operators are exhorted to advance harsh criminal sentencing policies and to dilute early-release, parole, and good behavior programs within their facilities. All of these market-based incentives, as applied to the field of corrections, operate to the detriment of the government, prison inmates and society as a whole (Anderson 1).”
Even if they would concede that the quality of facilities is worse, advocates would argue that prison privatization is cheaper than public options. The evidence, however, does not support that assertion. A study by the state of Arizona found they paid private contractors $11 more per prisoner per day than the average daily cost of state-operated prisons, totaling an additional $4.1 million a year (Anderson 4). Any proposed savings are also short sighted since it does not take into account increased costs due to more legal oversight and the higher recidivism rates of private prisons. Also, I would like to reinforce that profits accrued by GEO Group, $185 million in 2013, are taken from tax payers. That is $185 million of taxpayer money that could have been spent on medical care, rehabilitation programs or not spent at all.
A report by In the Public Interest, a resource center on privatization and responsible contracting well summarized the situation:
“Incarceration for profit has caused many problems, as private companies fail to make decision in the best interest of the inmates or the communities in which prisons are located. Private prisons companies have employed unqualified guards, resorted to excessive violence and cruelty to control inmates, and provided substandard medical care, resulting in unnecessary deaths. Prison privatization has led to numerous lawsuits and litigation, fines and increased need for federal oversight, at great cost to taxpayers, communities and their families (Fischer 2).”
If John Stuart Mill were assessing GEO Group I am confident he would conclude that their practices fail to bring about “the greatest amount of good for the greatest number” (Driver). Inmates housed at for-profit prisons are much likely to be subject to violence, poor medical care and lack of access to rehabilitation. The average citizen is burdened with the increased costs and crime rates due to recidivism. Simply put, the practices of GEO Group do not maximize happiness for the general public or the incarcerated. To the contrary they increase the suffering of the incarcerated and are making a profit off of the transaction.
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ACLU. “Mistreating People + Lobbying = More Money.” ACLU Action. N.p., 21 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.
Anderson, Lucas. “Kicking the National Habit: The Legal Policy Arguments for Abolishing Private Prison Contracts.” ProQuest. Public Contract Law Journal 39.1, 2009. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.
Burnett, John. “Town Relies On Troubled Youth Prison for Profits.” NPR. NPR, 25 Mar. 2011. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.
Driver, Julia. “The History of Utilitarianism.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 21 Dec. 2013. Web. 22 Nov. 2014.
Fischer, Brenda. “Violence, Abuse and Death at For-Profit Prisons: A GEO Group Rap Sheet.” PR Watch. Source Watch, 26 Sept. 2013. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.
Hoovers. “The GEO Group, Inc.” Hoovers. N.p., 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.
Rosa, Erin. “GEO Group, Inc. Despite a Crashing Economy, Private Prison Firm Turns a Handsome Profit.” CorpWatch. CorpWatch, 1 Mar. 2009. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.
Shahani, Aarti. “What Is GEO Group?” NPR. NPR, 25 Mar. 2011. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.