Kids for Cash
In what was dubbed the “Kids for Cash” scandal that rocked the state of Pennsylvania in 2008, two judges in Wilkes-Barre were found guilty of accepting judicial kickbacks – upwards of 2.6 million dollars – for sentencing children to a particular developer of private juvenile detention centers.from a developer of juvenile detention facilities. In this case, the judges pocketed millions in exchange for sending thousands of children to the facility, located in Luzerne County, Pa. An estimated 6,000 children, where an estimated 1,000 – 2,000 received excess sentences, were impacted by the judges’ crimes.
As for the kids, their offenses were typically minor (i.e swearing, stealing a CD from Walmart). The violations made famous here helped expose the operations of a private prison system that only continues to grow in influence, as its advocates for its for-profit model as a way for states manage their growing prison population. This model, it should be pointed out, is not seen anywhere else in the world. But even this might be changing.
According to the maker of the film documentary, the problem in Wilkes-Barre started with the Columbine shootings. The 1999 massacre in a Colorado high school was instrumental in stoking irrational fears that led school administrators to hand off misbehaving kids to the county. Consequently, where once a fistfight might have put a juvenile in detention or resulted in a suspension, now children were getting arrested. And because of judges’ strict zero-tolerance policies, they often ended up in shackles.
The companies involved, PA Childcare LLC, Western PA Childcare LLC, and Mid-Atlantic Youth Services Corp., which own and operate the centers in Pittston Twp. and Butler County, all received a stipend from the government for each inmate housed. This created a situation where the detention centers looked for ways to bring more inmates into increase revenue. According to the Juvenile Law Center, a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, the judges sentenced teenagers to the facilities for simple misdemeanor offenses.
A key development worth noting is that most of those sentenced by judges Ciavarella and Conahan were denied the Constitutional right to an attorney because their probation service told them their misdemeanor crimes did not warrant one. It was only as a result of the judges pushing for particular facilities to house the inmates that caused people to suspect a partnership. It was a stunning abuse of power, and both men were eventually tried and sentenced to long prison terms for treating the children as commodities.
Justin Bodnar was sent to juvenile detention when he was 12 years old for using obscene language during an incident with another student’s mother. It put his sent his life in a downward spiral. It was in juvenile where he tried marijuana and heroin for the first time. Now in his early 20s, Bodnar is trying to get his life back on track. His story is just one of several told in the documentary.
Hillary Transue, who created a fake MySpace page to lampoon a teacher. Ed Kenzakoski, a high school wrestler, was detained for having drug paraphernalia in his truck. Kenzakoski never recovered from the experience. He became a different person and got into trouble again, this time as an adult. He took his life in 2010.
People often find it easy to say things like “juveniles who make mistakes should be taught a tough lesson.” The stories of most of those featured in Kids for Cash may be unusual in that they were prosecuted for minor or questionable offenses, but most young people sentenced to some form of detention are status offenders, meaning that they have committed offenses that would not be crimes if they were adults.
The Judges and Conspirators
In the documentary film, former judge Michael Conahan was shown admitting to his crime and accepting a plea agreement, though he was left to await sentencing; on September 23, 2011, he was sentenced to 17.5 years in prison and ordered to pay 874,000 dollars in restitution.
Unlike Conahan, former judge Mark Ciavarella did not accept a plea agreement and completely denied allegations of his involvement in the kids-for-cash scam. He and his family went as far as accusing Conahan of lying about the scam. They claimed Ciavarella was being falsely accused of a crime he did not commit. As a result, he was sentenced to 28 years in prison, 10.5 more years than Conahan. Had he admitted to his crimes, Ciavarella may have had a lesser sentence similar to that of Conahan. Ciavarella was found guilty of twelve of thirty-nine federal felonies including racketeering, mail fraud, money laundering, fraud conspiracy and filing false tax returns.
Disgraced Hazelton attorney Robert J. Powell, who arranged to pay the judges $770, 000, lost his yacht, jet, and Mountain Top mansion in the aftermath of the Kids for Cash scandal; he was sentenced to 18 months in jail, which he completed in 2013. A racketeering lawsuit was filed against Powell last year by Gregory Zappala, his former business partner in two private juvenile detention centers at the center of the scandal; in exchange for dismissal from that suit, Powell agreed to pay $4.75 million and possibly up to $2.5 million more based on his net worth calculated by the end of 2016.
Robert Mericle of Mericle Construction, a builder of for-profit youth detention centers, built the centers with Zappala’s PA Child Care, LLC, and other entities involved in the ownership and operation of the centers located in Pittston Township and western Pennsylvania. He was sentenced to a year in federal prison. Additionally, Mericle received a $250,000 fine and 100 hours of community service. He was also sentenced for lying about his involvement in the “kids for cash scandal,” in which he paid a total of $2.1 million for judges to send juveniles to his detention centers.
In 2009, Mericle also pleaded guilty to failure to disclose a felony, after he initially refused to admit he had paid [the] $2.1 million. He faced up to an additional three years in prison, but this sentence was reduced as part of his plea agreement. It is worth pointing out that Mericle did not actually break any laws by paying the judges. The judges, however, committed a crime by accepting the money.
Watch a preview of the documentary here:
The Final Payout
A series of class action lawsuits were filed in the case that had victims are seeking millions of dollars in compensation. A total of 1,187 juveniles and 605 parents filed claims to receive settlement money. The actual payouts began in December of 2015.
Robert Powell was ordered to pay 4.5 million dollars in restitution. He was the co-owner of two private juvenile justice facilities and served an 18-month prison term after admitting that he paid bribes to former Court of Common Pleas Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. and his boss, Judge Michael Conahan. The victims and their families won additional millions in judgments from Mericle and Powell’s companies. Additional class-action claims were filed against Ciavarella and Conahan.
Settlements of more than $20 million were reached with defendant Robert K. Mericle and Mericle Construction.
The two former judges, even if they are sued for compensation, are serving federal prison sentences; thus, it remains questionable and even doubtful that they would be able to make payments to victims.
What Can We Learn From This?
The movie illustrated how the long-term effects of detention were that kids didn’t learn their lesson so much as they sunk into a deep depression as they struggled with post-traumatic stress. Once they finished their sentences, the tiniest infractions would land them back in juvenile detention, where they might learn a thing or two from each other about doing drugs or building a bomb while cultivating a deep hatred for authority.
Not everyone benefits from positive social influences and family support. Recognizing that anyone of us could have been one of the children who became victims in the “kids for cash” scandal, we should heed the warning and approach juvenile justice in a very different way, compared to justice for adults.
The purpose of the juvenile justice system, as established by Pennsylvania law, is reform and treatment – not punishment. Evidence-based research demonstrates the effectiveness of programs designed to keep young offenders from becoming repeat offenders, as well as programs that allow them to seek expungement of their records after their sentence is served. One of the aims here, of course, is to help juveniles continue to pursue education and employment opportunities – opportunities they may otherwise be denied with a record hanging over their heads.
Prisons for Profit – the Prison Industrial Complex
Thus far, the Pennsylvania case is the only prosecuted case of judicial corruption and partnership with a private prison firm in the US. The influence of for-profit correctional centers, however, extends far beyond those who uphold the law to those who write the laws as well. In Arizona, the idea of a private prison to house illegal immigrants wooed lawmakers and corporations alike. Then-state senator, Russell Pearce (R), crafted the bill not with other lawmakers, but with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a membership organization of legislators and corporations.
In the state of Arizona, the concept of using private prison to house illegal immigrants has risen to new heights. Lawmakers, including the state governor, have been showered with thousands of dollars to influence their support for the process. Former state senator, Russell Pearce (R), crafted a bill to address immigrant detention not with other lawmakers and experts, but with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a membership organization of legislators and corporations. One of ALEC’s most prominent members is CCA (Corrections Corporation of America), the main organization that benefitted from the compensation paid to Ciavarella and Conahan for assigning juveniles to its facilities.
In the United States today, private companies operate 264 correctional facilities that house nearly 100,000 adult convicts. In a time when approximately 13 million Americans find themselves in a jail during any given year, six million of those end up in “correctional supervision,” more than in Joseph Stalin’s gulags. With that adding up to one in every 100 Americans being incarcerated, public prisons are running over capacity.
At the end of 2009, 19 states were operating at 100 percent or more of their highest capacity measure and the federal prison system was operating at 140 percent of capacity. Worthy of note is how all of this occurred during a period of time in which violent crime rates have fallen in the US, even as the nation’s incarceration rate has tripled since 1980.
The nations new jailers are now private prison corporations (private probation is on the rise too). Companies like CCA and the recently renamed GEO Group (now Abraxis) use their ever-increasing purchasing power to sway government legislators as part of a process of capitalizing on the prisoner overflow/overcrowding issues in public prisons. These two groups are the largest private prison operators in the United States, generating revenues of over $70 billion dollars.
Immigrant Detention – The New Cash Cow
The following article is written by Madison Pauly an originally appeared in Mother Jones Magazine
Immigration agents sparked panic across the country when a series of high-profile operations made it clear that a new era of crackdowns on undocumented immigrants had begun. Coming on the heels of a couple of major executive orders on immigration, the arrests and deportations were a very public reminder of President Donald Trump’s promise to deport upwards of 2 million immigrants upon taking office.
But given that America’s detention system for immigrants has been running at full capacity for some time now, where is the president going to put all of these people before deporting them?
In new jails, for starters. In the same executive order that called for the construction of a southern border wall, Trump instructed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to build out its sprawling network of immigration detention centers. Starting “immediately,” his order said, ICE should construct new facilities, lease space for immigrants alongside inmates in existing local jails, and sign new contracts—likely with private prison companies. The scale of that expansion became clearer on February 5, when the Los Angeles Times reported on a memo handed down in late January from White House immigration experts to top Homeland Security officials. The document called for raising the number of immigrants ICE incarcerates daily, nationwide, to 80,000 people.
Last year, ICE detained more than 352,000 people. The number of detainees held each day, typically between 31,000 and 34,000, reached a historic high of about 41,000 people in the fall, as Customs and Border Protection apprehended more people on the southwest border while seeing a simultaneous rise in asylum seekers. But doubling the daily capacity to 80,000 “would require ICE to sprint to add more capacity than the agency has ever added in its entire history,” says Carl Takei, staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project. It would also take an extra $2 billion in government funding per year, detention experts interviewed by Mother Jones estimated. And, Takei warned, “we don’t know if 80,000 is where he’ll stop.”
Yet even if ICE does not adopt an 80,000-person detention quota, other changes laid out in Trump’s executive orders suggest that vastly more people will be detained in the coming months and years. For example, Trump ordered ICE to prioritize deporting not only immigrants who been convicted or charged with crimes, but also those who had “committed acts that constitute a chargeable offense”—a category that could include entering the country illegally and driving without a license. Trump also ordered Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who oversees ICE, to take “all appropriate actions” to detain undocumented immigrants while their cases are pending.
Beyond that, ICE could stop granting parole to asylum seekers, explains Margo Schlanger, a former Obama administration official who served as Homeland Security’s top authority on civil rights. With ICE taking enforcement action against more categories of immigration offenders and releasing fewer of them, Schlanger says, “we could get to a very large sum of people in detention very quickly.”
It’s not difficult to guess who profits. In an earnings call last week, the private prison giant CoreCivic (formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA) announced that it saw the ICE detention expansion as a business opportunity. “When coupled with the above average rate of crossings along the southwest border, these executive orders appear likely to significantly increase the need for safe, humane, and appropriate detention bed capacity that we have available,” CoreCivic President and CEO Damon Hininger said.
As of November, a whopping 65 percent of ICE detainees were held in facilities run by private prison companies, which typically earn a fee per detainee per night and whose business model depends upon minimizing costs to return profits to their shareholders. Since Trump’s election, private prison stocks have soared, and two new, for-profit detention centers are opening in Georgia and Texas.
Making $$$$ Out of Misery
Another private prison company, Management & Training Corp., is reportedly seeking a contract with ICE to reopen the Willacy County Correctional Institution, a troubled detention camp that held up to 2,000 ICE detainees in Kevlar tents between 2006 and 2011. “Historically, ICE has relied heavily on the private prison industry every time the detention system has expanded,” Takei says. “There’s little doubt in my mind that they will continue to rely on the private prison industry in what’s going to be the biggest expansion of the agency in history.”
The first new detention center contracts will likely take the form of arrangements between ICE and local governments to reopen empty prison facilities as detention centers or rent beds in existing local jails, Takei says. The arrangements, known intergovernmental service agreements, allow ICE to cut deals with local governments and private prison companies while avoiding a lengthy public bidding process. Occasionally, the local government agrees to hold ICE detainees alongside inmates in their publicly run jail—an arrangement a Department of Homeland Security subcommittee recently called “the most problematic” option for holding detainees. But most of the time, local governments simply act as middlemen in deals between ICE and private prison companies.
The opaque nature of the process allows all parties to avoid public outcry before the deals are signed, explains Silky Shah, co-director of the Detention Watch Network, an immigrant rights advocacy group. So far, immigration advocates haven’t gotten wind of many new contracts being negotiated or signed since Trump’s inauguration. “But that doesn’t mean contracting activity is not taking place,” Takei says. “I suspect there are closed-door meetings taking place across the country right now.”
Expanding detention quickly could have a high human cost. Schlanger is worried that conditions inside detention facilities could deteriorate without proper oversight from the Department of Homeland Security. “There are a lot of bad things that happen if the number of beds is ramped up fast, without appropriate controls, monitoring, supervision, and care,” she says, pointing to the potential overuse of solitary confinement, inadequate safety measures, poor nutrition, and insufficient medical care. “That means detainees could die.” Asylum seekers, she warns, will have a harder time fighting their immigration cases from inside detention centers, where it’s difficult to access lawyers and gather evidence. More could be coerced into voluntary deportation: “You’re vulnerable to the government saying to you, ‘Look, we’ll let you out from detention, but you have to give up your immigration case.'”
We don’t have to look far in the past to see the danger of rushing to open new detention facilities. Last year, as several thousand Haitian immigrants arrived on the southern border, fleeing natural disasters and poverty, the Department of Homeland Security began seeking contracts for new detention facilities to accommodate the surge. In their scramble to secure space for the new arrivals, ICE officials reportedly considered ignoring quality standards for the facilities—”scraping the bottom looking for beds,” as one official told the Wall Street Journal.
The bottom of the barrel, in this case, included a prison in Cibola County, New Mexico, owned by CoreCivic. Last summer, after an investigation by The Nation revealed a pattern of severe, longtime medical neglect in the 1,100-bed facility—which had gone months without a doctor—the US Bureau of Prisons decided to pull its inmates out and cancel its contract with CoreCivic. Yet less than a month after the last federal prisoner was transferred out, ICE was already negotiating an agreement with the county and CoreCivic to detain immigrants in the newly vacant facility. Four hundred immigrants are currently detained there. Takei notes that ICE contracted with the same company, for the same prison: “There weren’t any substantive changes.”
Shah expects to see familiar problems like poor medical care worsen as new deals for detention facilities are finalized. “One of the concerns we hear most often is that when people complain about ailments, [officers] will come back and just say, ‘Well, drink more water, or take an Advil and you’ll be fine,'” she says. “It’s a really harsh system already. If you’re going to expand at this level, it’s just going to become that much harsher.”
Were you familiar with the concept of “prisons for profit?” What do you think about the potential conflict of interest that may be inherent in running prisons for profit?
Would you ever consider working for a for-profit prison or probation agency?
During the Obama Presidency, legislation was implemented to curtail the growth of for-profit prisons; the Trump administration reversed this decision and is actively pursuing a policy of fostering the growth of the private prison industry. What does the research say about outcomes (i.e. time served, recidivism) when prisons are managed by private corporations?
What does the research say about outcomes (i.e. time served, recidivism) when prisons are managed by private corporations?
Some people like to think of prison as a form of government-subsidized public housing. What do you think?
What do you think about the moral argument of locking people up for profit?
What products do you own/use that are produced by prisoners? Take a quick personal inventory and discuss!