John Kiriakou: The Pope Goes to Prison in America

Twenty states so far have contracted with private prisons. Even the federal government avails itself of private prison beds and transportation centers. For many prisoners, being sent to a private prison is a death sentence.

Pope Francis. (photo: AP)
Pope Francis. (photo: AP)

By John Kiriakou  Reader Supported News  September 23, 2015

ope Francis arrived in Washington today, snarling traffic and drawing some 300,000 people into the city. I’m excited that the Pope, who has called out capitalism for its indifference to the poor, and who has reached out to gay Catholics, has come to the United States. But I’m even more excited about his follow-on trip to Philadelphia, where he’s going to meet with prisoners in Philadelphia’s Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.

It’s one thing for Barack Obama to visit a prison and talk about wanting to commute the draconian sentences of federal prisoners with drug convictions (which he has not yet done, incidentally). It’s an entirely different thing for the leader of the world’s one billion Catholics to get a first-hand look at how our country’s prisons violate the civil and human rights of their prisoners. The only shame is that His Holiness won’t see one of America’s private prisons.


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The United States is not the only country in the world with private, for-profit prisons, although it certainly has the most, and it has the worst. The American Civil Liberties Union in 2013, for example, filed a civil lawsuit against the State of Mississippi, which, although not known for its enlightened treatment of its citizens and others these past 200 years, still must respect the Constitution, whether its elected officials want to or not. Indeed, the 83-page complaint details evidence of “beatings, rape, robbery, and riots,” and says that the prison, which houses the mentally ill almost exclusively, routinely denies prisoners access to medication and psychiatric care.

The prison, the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, which is run by the privately-owned, Utah-based Management & Training Corporation, an innocuously-named company that profits on the misery of human beings, is so overwhelmingly infested with rats that prisoners capture them, keep them as pets, and use them as currency. A company spokesman told The Huffington Post at the time the suit was filed that the company had made great improvements in the prison over the previous 10 months. I can’t even fathom the thought of what conditions must have been like 10 months earlier.

After blowing the whistle on the CIA’s illegal torture program and being sentenced to 30 months in prison, I went directly to the Federal Correctional Institution at Loretto, Pennsylvania, rather than to a private prison. But some of my cellmates did go to private prisons.

They told me stories of 200 men sharing a single toilet – with a broken toilet seat – at the Central Virginia Regional Jail in Orange, Virginia. They talked about being starved as punishment for talking back to a guard at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown. And they talked about two televisions for 200 men at the Kit Carson Correctional Center in Colorado, which resulted in fistfights every hour to decide which shows to watch. They talked about the arbitrary use of solitary confinement as a punishment for virtually every infraction, real and imagined, despite the fact that the United Nations has declared the use of solitary confinement in the United States as “cruel and unusual punishment” and as a violation of basic human rights.

But most importantly, they talked about denying prisoners the most basic levels of medical care and medication, especially for mentally ill prisoners. In a case in March, a prisoner with a degenerative spinal disorder in Fresno, California, accused for-profit prison medical provider Corizon of taking away his wheelchair because he had filed a complaint about the prison doctor. Corizon had settled another suit this year filed by the family of a prisoner who became paralyzed while under Corizon’s care. The Corizon doctor had written “faker” in the prisoner’s file, and he was not given medical treatment until it was too late to treat him. These are just two of dozens of lawsuits filed against Corizon.

Twenty states so far have contracted with private prisons. Even the federal government avails itself of private prison beds and transportation centers. For many prisoners, being sent to a private prison is a death sentence. These facilities have no incentive to spend any money at all on maintenance, recreation, or medical and mental health care. Indeed, they have an incentive not to. They are answerable to their shareholders, and their goal is not to rehabilitate anybody.  It’s to make a profit.

So, what evil capitalists are making money on this human misery? You might be surprised. The country’s two largest for-profit prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, are traded on the New York Stock Exchange. But according to Prison Legal News magazine, most stockholders are not individual investors. They are banks, mutual funds, and private equity firms, including public pensions. Indeed, just the public employee retirement systems and teachers retirement systems of 19 states account for 2.6 million shares of CCA and 1.1 million shares of GEO for a total investment of some $114 million.

The Pope has a chance next week to take President Obama and Congress to the woodshed for allowing these human rights violations to become the norm in the U.S. prison system. Nobody should make a profit from human misery. It’s un-American. And it’s definitely not Christian.


John Kiriakou is an associate fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies. He is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.

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