I blogged yesterday about a prison riot at a privately-operated facility in West Texas. That private operator is the GEO Group, and it just so happens my roommate Bob has written on this very company and their operation of the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center. Enjoy:
Students committed by the State of Texas to the Texas Youth Commission’s (TYC) Coke County Juvenile Justice Center (Coke), a private facility contracted to the TYC by The GEO Group, Inc.(GEO), were subjected to inhumane, brutal, unsanitary and dangerous conditions. These findings have surfaced after an inquiry released 24 September 2007 by TYC ombudsman Will Harrell revealed numerous concerns about the operation of the facility and the treatment of students there. Further, the TYC conducted an audit of the facility from 26 September 2007 to 2 October 2007, the results of which have been made available in a TYC report. The report indicates living conditions that threaten the health and safety of the students housed at Coke County. The students housed at TYC Coke were treated poorly because they are considered, like individuals who differed cognitively or emotionally from most of their peers have and continue to be considered “mentally ill,” as “juvenile delinquents” and therefore unworthy of a human existence. The forces responsible for the systematization of this treatment and entrenchment of the rhetorical consideration of institutionalized youth are economic and political. Simply, the quest for money and power drives companies and politicians to do terrible things.
People whose behaviors deviate from society’s accepted norm are routinely marginalized and dehumanized. Beginning in the 19th century and continuing until the 1970s those considered mentally ill have been relegated to asylums, in some cases comparable to Nazi concentration camps (Whitaker 41):
As I passed through some of Byberry’s wards, I was reminded of the Nazi concentration camps at Belsen and Buchenwald. I entered buildings swarming with naked humans herded like cattle and treated with less concern, pervaded by a fetid odor so heavy, so nauseating, that the stench seemed to have almost a physical existence of its own. I saw hundreds of patients living under leaking roofs, surrounded by moldy, decaying walls, and sprawling on rotting floors for want of seats or benches.
The TYC report finds similar and equally deplorable conditions at Coke: “serious problems with insects throughout the facility and grounds,” “Seating from part of the youth living areas has been removed,” “staff covers the cell windows from the outside so that a youth cannot see outside the cell,” “JCO staff . . . do not monitor the youth or address behavior issues,” “cells were filthy, smelled of feces and urine,” “youth have inadequate food and clothing, and are subjected to unsanitary living conditions, physical, and psychological harm”(Pope). These findings corroborate Harrell’s earlier report, in which he wrote, “The dorm is malodorous and dark,” and “Many students . . . complain of regularly discovering insects in their food” (Harrell) The parallels between these two reports and that quoted by Whitaker are startling. Even though fifty-nine years have passed, the treatment of deviant individuals shows little improvement. A CBS News report from May 2000 profiled the same Coke County facility operated by the same company, although under a different name, and found, according to Department of Justice (DOJ) documents, “cruel and humiliating punishments,” and the routine use of “excessive force” (CBS). In the time between the recent reports and 2000 DOJ findings Member of Congress Sheila Jackson Lee called for an inquest by the DOJ regarding mal treatment at contracted TYC facilities (Lee). The DOJ, however, bureaucratically swept the allegations under the rug, just as the National Institutes of Mental Health quashed any meaningful research into schizophrenia treatment, allowing the conditions to worsen and the bad treatment to continue (Whitaker 223). The dehumanizing conditions are symptomatic of the conception of the individuals in the juvenile justice system as delinquent and dangerous. Society’s response today is no different from the 1920s: to detain. Eugenicists argued that the only way to protect the genetic makeup of the United States was to lock defective individuals in detention camps and asylums (Whitaker 57). Troublesome youth are locked up in order to protect society.
The money to be made in corrections is considerable. The executives at GEO are intimately aware of this fact. In 2006, GEO’s revenues topped $800 million from the operation of 47,315 corrections beds in the United States, 5,745 corrections beds in Australia, the United Kingdom and South Africa, and 1,773 psychiatric beds (GEO 2006). What is more startling is that GEO’s TYC operation generated only $8 million in revenue and accounted for only 200 beds, less than 1% of the company’s operations (GEO 2007). That explains why GEO is in the corrections business, but why would state legislators and regulators accept such appalling treatment of young people? The answer is also financial. A report from In These Times citing a study conducted by the Institute on Money in State Politics shows that private prison companies have provided $3.3 million in campaign contributions, at least $175,750 coming from GEO (Talvi). These figures may explain why GEO has been able to operate the Coke facility for nearly thirteen years amid frequent allegations of mistreatment and even federal investigations. Whitaker observes markedly similar trends in the pharmaceutical industry. Today, drug companies sell $11.2 billion worth of anti-psychotic medication (Blum), almost five times the figure in 1998 (Whitaker 261). Despite the rise in medication sales, very little progress has been made in improving the efficacy of the drugs or establishing a scientific rationale for their administration. Even though these treatments are based in “hubris” and “do not fix any known brain abnormality,” they are manufactured and prescribed because drug companies, health maintenance organizations, state agencies and doctors make huge sums of money (Whitaker 291).
In closing, the stigmatization and marginalization of “delinquent” youth follow the same path as the “mentally ill.” These misconceptions about the individuals to which these labels are applied justifies treating them poorly, and the poor treatment is prolonged by corporate greed.