“Kids for cash”: the dangers of private prisons laid bare

Last month two Pennsylvania judges pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges which relate to the jailing of around 2000 children between June 2000 and January 2007. The children were sent to two private detention facilities in exchange for bribes worth more than $2.6 million; the private prison companies belonged to the Mid Atlantic Youth Services Corp. The case has become known as the “kids for cash” scandal and has raised questions about the close ties between the courts and private contractors, as well as the harsh treatment adolescents have received in the criminal justice system in the Pennsylvania and beyond.

President Judge Mark Ciavarella and former President Judge Michael Conahan agreed to 87-month prison sentences for themselves, but as Jurist has reported, the pleas will not be formally accepted until sentencing, which could take up to 90 days. Ciavarella claims he took the money innocently, assuming it was a legitimate “finder’s fee” from the private company for help in building the detention centre. He denies sending children to custody in return for kickbacks. This matter will also have to be determined by the court.

The story did not receive much attention this side of the atlantic, although the Guardian covered it and George Monbiot wrote a good piece where he provided the following examples of the types of sentencing decisions the judges made in relation to children coming before them:

“Michael Conahan sent children to jail for offences so trivial that some of them weren’t even crimes. A 15 year-old called Hillary Transue got three months for creating a spoof web page ridiculing her school’s assistant principal. Mr Ciavarella sent Shane Bly, then 13, to boot camp for trespassing in a vacant building. He gave a 14 year-old, Jamie Quinn, 11 months in prison for slapping a friend during an argument, after the friend slapped her.”

Monbiot’s focus was not so much the issue of judicial corruption but more the fact that “This is what happens when public services are run for profit.” He reports that the judges also took action which resulted in the closing of a competing prison which operated in the public sector. The money was diverted to a private company called PA Child Care (PACC) which it helped to build a new facility in the area.

And it is this point that links to more commonplace acts of corruption and bizarre decision making regarding the operation of the prison sector in the USA. Where prisons are run for profit, there is a corporate need to ensure that the market for imprisonment does not fail. Therefore people must be imprisoned. The ultimate connection between both the politicians responsible for criminal justice policy and the courts can then become tainted at best, and corrupted at worst, as in this case.

The legal fall out from the Pennsylania corruption cases is now being felt. On 26th March the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered that convictions of hundreds of children be overturned and the relevant records expunged without hearing. This decision followed the recommendation of Special Master Grim which was made in order to investigate the “alleged travesty of juvenile justice …[and] to identify the affected juveniles and rectify the situation as fairly and swiftly as possible”.

Grim recommended that this should be done in all non-serious cases where the juveniles appearing before Ciavarella were not represented by lawyers, something that happened in half of the cases before him. Grim wrote:

“This prompt action in these non-serious cases will be at least one step towards righting the wrongs which were visited upon these juveniles and will help restore confidence in the justice system. Furthermore, it is not in the interest of the community to relitigate these non-serious cases, nor do I believe that the victims would be well-served by new proceedings.”

In more serious cases the juveniles can object to a decision and the Supreme Court will examine those cases.

University of Pitsburgh School of Law Professor David Harris criticised the plea deal made by the judges and is quoted on Jurist “I don’t think seven years is nearly enough for the harm they did to the system of justice, to our collective belief in the rule of law, to these children, and to their families.”

His point is well made. The judges sent children to prison establishments and boot camps in situations that were inappropriate or for offences that were not even criminal or warranting detention. The impact of that detention is in many ways immeasurable in terms of the psychological, physical and emotional harm that those children will have experienced and are still experiencing. The criminal justice system is often regarded as being overly punitive, but not when it comes to corrupt judges who were willing to trade children’s lives for financial benefit.

And what of the corporation that was willing to pay for those children? The culture of private prisons as business seems to be breeding corporations that see nothing wrong in finding alternative means of filling their facilities. In this case there has been no action in relation to the corporation. PACC’s then owner, Bob Powell, has not been charged. The company is still operating and its spokesman denies that its current owner knew of the kickbacks