Destroying Young Lives Should Not be Profitable
By Sheila Bedi
It came to be known as “kids for cash.”
That was the name given to the alleged $2.8 million bribery scheme in which a former Pennsylvania judge
was accused of sentencing children to for-profit detention centers for kickbacks.
This month, the judge went on trial in that case and, days later, was convicted on several of the counts from
the federal indictment. Unfortunately, this incident is only the latest to raise concerns about the wisdom of
allowing for-profit companies into the juvenile justice system.
The toxic effect of for-profit companies on the juvenile justice system is indisputable. Across the country,
nearly half of all children held behind bars live in facilities managed by private, for-profit companies. And
tough economic times may spur more local governments to consider turning over their juvenile facilities to
But when we create a profit motive to imprison children we risk creating a public safety crisis. The bottom line
is that private prison companies make money when young people fill their facilities. A private prison company
has no incentive to provide rehabilitative services that—if done correctly—could decrease the demand for
prison beds. These companies similarly have no incentive to question whether the children in their custody
could be better served with far less expensive community based interventions. These realities can stymie
reform and create a costly, self perpetuating cycle of imprisonment.
The Southern Poverty Law Center recently filed two federal lawsuits that demonstrate in graphic detail the
dangers of imprisoning children for profit—often that means corners are cut, duties are shirked and young
lives are irreparably damaged.
In Mississippi, several private entities profit off the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility—a place that
has become synonymous with violence and abuse. Prison staffers beat the youths in their custody. They
sold drugs to them. They even engaged in sexual relationships with them. Young men languished without
medical care and others have been beaten and raped.
Remarkably, because of a contract that allowed the facility to make money for each young man imprisoned
there, the prison has only grown – tripling in size since opening its doors in 2001. About 1,200 young men
are now in the custody of these companies. It’s bad news for the community, but good business for the
companies. The more juveniles they lock up, the more money they get from the state.
At the Thompson Academy juvenile prison in Broward County, Fla., children suffered abuse and neglect as
well. But when these youths attempted to contact lawyers, they were intimidated and coerced into signing
statements ending or declining legal representation. Apparently, allowing these young people to recount
their experiences to a lawyer would be bad for business.
These lawsuits are only two examples of a greater problem across this country. Our juvenile justice system is
being undermined by for-profit prison companies.
We shouldn’t be surprised when we hear about “kids for cash” schemes. This is an industry where a
company’s success depends on the failure of our children. And it thrives when the children in its care are
ignored and forgotten.
Our children and our communities deserve better. And it’s why we must demand a juvenile justice system
that doesn’t turn a profit every time it destroys a young life.
Diana Schwartz on Tue, 02/22/2011 - 13:54.
This article is very true and the concept of for profit correctional facilities is very frightening. Demand is
growing for these kind of institutions and local governments are welcoming them. In states where
undocumented immigrants are part of the communities, for profit detention facilities are hungry for the next
set of legislation that mirrors Arizona anti immigrant legislation, because it will only expand their marketability.
Local governments use the excuse that contracting with private detention facilites eases the financial burden
on local coffers while bringing jobs to mostly rural areas hit hard by currrent economic factors. It might be
pandered as a win win situation for government fical responsibiltiy but it is a loss for dignity, humanity and
the future of our communities.
Lex G on Tue, 02/22/2011 - 14:51.
It is unfortunate that we allow for-profit correctional facilities to exist at all. The main goal of the facility is
probably not rehabilitation so much as making money off of having inmates. The fact that for-profit facilities
exist in regard to juvenile justice is just sickening. Rehab should be the most important part for juvenile
offenders, and now they are being put into situations where they are likely to become so damaged, they will
be offenders for life.
Kathy H on Wed, 02/23/2011 - 10:16.
The United States still have not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the US children can
be put on death row. What goes on in our juvenile prisons is plain human rights abuse, and child abuse and
exploitatin. Unacceptable! Thank you for this article. We need to continue to expose this attrocious reality
and hold the child abusers and exploiters accountable, including the US government.
Howard B on Wed, 03/02/2011 - 16:19.
I totally agree with the point of the article, but it has to go further. Private detention facilities, with maybe a
very few exceptions, have no business existing (I mention few exceptions because for most issues, there is at
least one but I cannot think of one in this situation yet). The purpose of a prison, adult or juvenile, is to safely
and secure offenders in order to rehabilitate them or for those that truly can't be returned to society (for the
most part adults) to humanely keep them from the public. Businesses exist to make a profit. Simple
economics require one to spend less money than they bring in. In order to do this, the business must try to
limit costs, including labor costs and capital expenditures. Having spent the last eighteen years in law
enforcement (not the corrections side) I have been to numerous prisons, jails and detention centers. Without
a doubt I can say that state owned facilities have better centers and their employees are miles ahead of the
lower paid, poorly educated staff at the private facilities. Add to that the process of redress. Any government
agency is responsible to various legislative bodies, while a private system is responsible to only the
shareholders who are also driven by the profit margin. While there is some level of oversight for private
centers, state ran facilities answer directly to the state - also known as the people. The more we spend on
rehabilitating offenders young and old, the less we will later spend to incarcerate them. Warehousing a
prisoner for a term of years and tossing them out to the street insures their return to crime and eventually
Patricia Miles on Thu, 03/03/2011 - 18:52.
These children will most likely become "offenders for life." We're allowing these prison systems to create
monsters of children--compounding the abuse they've probably experienced throughout their lives. It's so
much less expensive to rehab people than it is to imprison them. "When will they ever learn?"