† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
CI: Con Artists, Profit and Community Corrections
by Kay Whitlock
There’s a con game, going on in the field of reducing prison populations, folks, and a big part of it is disguised under concepts like “community corrections” “alternatives to incarceration,” and “re-entry programs.”
The focus in this post is on the New Jersey “community corrections” confidence game.
Like all swindles, this con game plays to and manages a variety of public perceptions, hopes and expectations: reducing the prison population, reducing prison spending, ending the injustices of the so-called “war on drugs (particularly for those convicted of minor offenses),” emphasizing alternatives to incarceration wherever possible, relying on imprisonment only for the most violent offenders, and creating safer communities. It’s a win-win for everyone, right? Or so the public relations blitz on the subject seems to indicate.
Take another look. A while back, CI published “Confidence Men & Prison Reform,” an overview of the blitz and problem: profit-producing “prison reform” initiatives that are attracting uncritical “bipartisan” support in state legislatures.
This swindle has no intention of dismantling the racism and economic violence so foundational to the U.S. incarceration society. But it does have every intention of strengthening the complex network of public and private interests, institutions, and corporations that make up the prison industrial complex – though it tries to use a variety of cosmetic tricks and a little sleight of hand to convince you you’re seeing something different. As economist Paul Krugman says, what’s going on in New Jersey is part of “a broader pattern in which essential functions of government are being both privatized and degraded.”
Here’s the New Jersey cautionary tale – revealed with special thanks to the New York Times and to Prison Legal News; their articles detailing aspects of this story are linked throughout this discussion.
The Deceptively Pretty Picture & Promise of Privatization
The New Jersey prison population, federal data says, fell from 30,000 inmates in 2000 to 25,000 prisoners in 2012. State officials claim that the success is due to the creation of large halfway houses – now renamed “treatment centers” – intended to serve “low-level” offenders nearing the end of their sentences, an initiative launched in the late 1990s.
In these treatment centers, inmates are assessed in order to receive appropriate treatment from a spectrum of services intended to help them with successful community re-entry: substance abuse treatment programs, job counseling, psychological assistance, and more.
Not only do these treatment centers reduce the prison population, but are also intended to reduce recidivism by virtue of the strong re-entry support that is provided.
Not incidentally, the cost to the state per halfway house/treatment center inmate is about half of what it cost to keep the same person in prison. (Where are the savings going? Not to spending for human needs such as education, housing, food assistance, health care, and jobs programs; all that is being slashed.)
The halfway houses/treatment centers have been embraced over the years by Republican and Democratic governors, officials, and legislators alike. But today, they are thriving and being touted as the innovative way of the future. In FY 2011, New Jersey spent about $105 million on community-based treatment centers.
Moreover, purportedly to ensure that the profit motive won’t be at the forefront of operation, the New Jersey state mandates that only nonprofit organizations may run these Private, for-profit vendors are not permitted to contract with the government for community correctional services.
When services are contracted out to private entities in New Jersey, there is always the potential that political influence will corrupt the process. In order to create the illusion of greater transparency, New Jersey’s “pay to play” laws require that a business with more than $50,000 in government contracts disclose, on an annual basis, its political contributions. Oh – wait. There is a loophole: as Prison Legal News reports, since 2008, nonprofits have been exempt from these laws.
But how much difference could that make? Right? After all, federal law prohibits nonprofits from contributing directly to political candidates and campaigns.
Keep this pretty picture in mind, and the public relations blitz that supports this kind of privatization. It’s key to one of the main strategies used by magicians, confidence men, and swindlers: misdirection.
“People tend to think of misdirection as the art of making someone look to the left while some fast move is being pulled on the right. But really, it is more often about force-focusing your spotlight of attention to a particular place at a particular time.”
–neuroscientists Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions
At the heart of misdirection is the con artist’s attempt to localize our attention, to point it in a particular direction, toward a particular “frame.” Once focused in that direction, we have a tendency to fail to see what’s happening outside of that frame. The frame here is the promise of all the wonderful benefits from a shift to community corrections and their privatization.
But what’s happening outside the frame?
The Private Providers & Players
While the cost per inmate is markedly reduced in the treatment centers, “community corrections” are still big, big business, to the tune of about $500 million since New Jersey decided to move in this direction. This is especially so for the two “nonprofit organizations” that provide most of New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) treatment center beds. (Six other vendors also provide treatment center services.)
The dominant vendor (1,687 of 3,029 treatment center beds under state contract) is Education and Health Centers of America (EHCA), a nonprofit organization created to legally receive government contracts. It provides no services itself, but contracts with the for-profit Community Education Centers (CEC). While this appears to violate the spirit, if not the letter of the “nonprofits only” law on contracts for community corrections, New Jersey officials say it is all quite legal.
The two groups are not only closely connected by their service commitments, but – and this is truly magical – they are essentially run by the same man, John J. Clancy. Clancy serves as the CEO of EHCA and chairman of CEC. A Democrat, he enjoys a close association with NJ Governor Chris Christie; both he and CEC have donated generously to Christie and his inauguration. CEC also donates to both Republican and Democratic governors associations – but primarily to the Republican group.
William J. Palatucci, until recently a Community Education Centers’ senior vice president and counsel for operations is a former law partner and longtime close friend and political associate of Christie’s. He helped run the governor’s election campaign and today is a trusted political advisor. He previously served as a registered lobbyist for CEC. In November 2012, he announced that he was stepping down.
CEC, in fact, is a big presence in for-profit community corrections beyond New Jersey; it now provides services in 18 states, including Pennsylvania, Florida, and Texas – and so might be something of a poster child for how the growing push for community corrections in a number of states might play out.
The Kintock Group, operating almost exclusively in New Jersey, is the second-largest nonprofit vendor for community treatment centers in New Jersey, receiving almost all of its revenue from government contracts. The organization pays David D. Fawkner, its CEO (and former parole/probation officer), handsomely – about $7 million over the past ten years – nice compensation in the growing nonprofit industrial complex arena. Fawkner has donated to both the Republican and Democratic parties in New Jersey – and most recently, to the Romney/Ryan campaign.
“Never mind what privatization does or doesn’t do to state budgets; think instead of what it does for both the campaign coffers and the personal finances of politicians and their friends. As more and more government functions become privatized, states become pay-to-play paradises, in which both political contributions and contracts for friends and relatives become a quid pro quo for getting government business. Are the corporations capturing the politicians, or the politicians capturing the corporations? Does it matter?”
New Jersey Politicians at the Center
As noted previously, New Jersey’s for-profit community corrections industry has been supported by both Republicans and Democrats. But it has a very special champion in Gov. Chris Christie (Republican) is a former lobbyist for Community Education Centers who today not only enjoys close relationships with (and big campaign contributions from) the profiteers, but touts New Jersey’s privatized re-entry centers as “representing the very best of the human spirit.” As a new governor in 2010, he insisted on significant budget cuts in many areas (especially social spending), but sought increased funding for privatized treatment centers.
Then there’s Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr., Essex County Executive (Democrat ), a strong ally of Gov. Christie. Since 2006, DiVincenzo has received more than $30,000 in campaign contributions from Community Education Center executives and members of their families. In 2011, Essex County awarded CEC’s nonprofit shill, Education and Health Centers of America (ECHA), a multimillion dollar contract for housing county inmates and federal immigration detainees in Delaney Hall. ECHA was the only bidder for the contract, a development that caused immigrant rights advocates and unionized corrections officers to question and challenge the contracts.
Keep your eye on these guys over time.
Exposés of Abuses, Failures, and Corruption
The New York Times has published a remarkable multipart series by Sam Dolnick, “UNLOCKED: Inside New Jersey’s Halfway Houses,”exposing horrendous problems in New Jersey’s privatized community corrections system.
For example, the privatized community corrections system relies on a work force that is poorly paid, inadequately skilled, and expected to cope with inadequate resources. Under-staffing is commonplace; night shifts are particularly problematic in these dormitory-style facilities. There’s large turnover in the workforce because staff find themselves facing situations they are not equipped to deal with and that they feel are dangerous, both to themselves and inmates. The problems include sexual violence, rampant drug use, and gang violence. What kind of accountability is in place? Dolnick’s investigative reporting noted that when a female inmate at New Jersey’s “Bo” Robinson Assessment and Treatment Center was assigned to a cleaning crew under the supervision of a janitor and was sexually assaulted by him, she was simply transferred to another facility. A police detective interviewed her, but there was no followup. The janitor was fired, and that’s as far as it went.
In 2009, officials in Mercer County officials grew concerned about drug use at the purportedly drug-free Bo Robinson facility; their surprise drug tests revealed that 73% of inmates tested positive for drugs. Staff members, inmates, and state records confirm the widespread availability of a wide variety of drugs. Even as the evidence mounted, New Jersey corrections commissioner, appointed by Gov. Christie, continued to insist that policy enforcement of drug-free environments is “vigilant.” What happened to those who tested positive in the Mercer County surprise test? They were transferred back to jail. What happened to the Bo Robins halfway house? Nothing. In fact, CEC reports stellar drug testing results.
There is evidence that treatment records are falsified. Required to prove to state and county officials that inmates were being rehabilitated, officials and workers at Bo Robinson reported various forms of identical counseling/treatment reports for as many as 30 different inmates. Counselors sometimes copied colleague’s progress reports and submitted them as their own. Documents were altered to say inmates who had taken no drug tests had passed them.
In many respects, the shoddy-to-nonexistent provision of many treatment services resembles the nightmare of prison health care and its privatization, a topic CI explored earlier in more depth in “Prison Health Care as Punishment.” We are permitting a horrific aspect of prison administration and privatization to be replicated in the world of community corrections – at least in New Jersey.
Then there’s the matter of escapes from these so-called “model institutions.” Dolnick’s investigation conformed that “since 2005, roughly 5,100 inmates have escaped…including at least 1,300 in the 29 months since Governor Christie took office.” They’d leave for work-release programs and simply not return; they’d flee the supervision of unskilled workers while being returned to prison for institutional violations; they’d walk out the door and emergency exists of the facilities in which they were housed. Because community corrections workers are not allowed (or trained) to restrain inmates, they call local authorities, who are already too overwhelmed with their own responsibilities to adequately follow up. Creative Christie administrative accounting sought to revise downward the totals during Governor Christie’s tenure to date, but the problem remains a pressing one. State legislators and officials say they are aware of only a tiny handful of escapes. CEC asserts the escape rate is “staggeringly low,” but blames the escapes that do happen on other treatment center operators for permitting escapes of prisoners initially placed in CEC facilities. According to Dolnick, the Christie administration only began to fine CEC and other vendors for escapes months after the New York Times initially undertook its “escape” investigation. So much for responsibility and accountability. Most of those who do escape are quickly apprehended. But it’s a curious and unsettling pattern for an innovation said to produce greater community safety.
Seeing to narrow the yawning accountability gap, Democratic-controlled state legislature passed a measure requiring the DOC to provide more information about treatment center operations to the legislature. Citing the too-burdensome nature of these reporting requirements, Gov. Christie weakened them through use of a line-item veto.
And the list goes on and on.
The Accountability Confidence Game
In “Confidence Men and ‘Prison Reform,’” CI noted that a key part of the Right’s agenda includes a push against “over-criminalization” – but primarily of “non-fraudulent business activities.” Go here for a more detailed Right on Crime discussion.
The Right wants to make sure that criminal charges cannot be pursued against business interests and corporations – even if they engage in practices that cause serious injury or death to others – unless prosecutors can prove fraudulent intent or “appropriate culpable mental state.”
Thus, the kinds of abuses against inmates described in the New York Times expose of the New Jersey community corrections system would not be regarded as criminal. “Regulation” would better be managed, the Right says, through “fines and market forces.”
Criminal Injustice provides a much more detailed analysis of corporate personhood and (lack of) accountability for offenses that are criminal if committed by an individual here.
There’s Much More to this Con Game
Throughout 2013, CI will feature more snapshots of the Right on Crime agenda, its public relations campaign, and the “bipartisan support” for these measures. We’ll be talking about such issues as these:
- Why racial and economic justice are not integral to the new “bipartisan” reform agendas
- How community corrections may actually increase the number of people under state correctional supervision, creating, in effect, a shadow correctional system
- The increasing role for surveillance and control technology in community-based corrections
- Community corrections and immigrant detention
- How these initiatives will affect the “war on drugs”
- Regulatory oversight and corporate/political accountability
- Inmate safety and well-being
- Relationship of these initiatives to community safety
- The co-optation and distortion of restorative justice concepts
- Community corrections as union busting ( even though CI is often critical of police and correctional officers’ unions)
- Right on Crime and the nonprofit industrial complex
- The role of prominent foundations in promoting these reforms
- Do these initiatives work? What are the criteria? Who’s doing the research, and what questions are really being asked?
Make no mistake: we at Criminal Injustice and Critical Mass Progress want to dismantle the prison industrial complex. We believe community corrections initiatives and alternatives to incarceration are essential components of that work. But they must be designed and implemented with meaningful participation by community-based groups that have been working for decades with prisoners and their families, and to reduce incarceration. There must be solid, effective forms of oversight, regulatory enforcement, and accountability. Models that permit profiteering distort and corrupt many of the emerging models. And commitments to community safety within an unshakable framework of racial and economic justice are necessary to ensure that these “reforms” are not just new iterations of old, repressive models that primarily benefit the politicians and business executives who create them.
Until we have that kind of reform, Criminal Injustice intends to keep exposing confidence games, wherever they exist, regardless of who’s running them.