Tearing Down the Walls of Prison Profit

The US Department of Justice announced that it would be phasing out the use of correctional facilities owned and managed by third-party, for-profit companies. Spokesmen cited the increased level of violence at these prisons, along with less emphasis on educational training and job readiness.

There’s a popularly held belief that American business can always outperform government enterprises, run by lazy, bureaucratic flunkies. This mind-set is best represented by Donald Trump, who knows he can build a big wall and solve our “immigration problem.” Along with walls, private prison companies like the Corrections Corporation of America and the Geo Group built great warehouses to store our bulging incarcerated population.

On a certain level, I agree with those who think that a profit motive has to exist in order to solve many of society’s problems, including our broken criminal justice system. In fact, I am launching 70MillionJobs.com, the internet’s first job site exclusively for the 70 million Americans with criminal records, and the many companies that will hire them.

My goal is to make a lot of money, and also perform a lot of social good. There are so many wonderful non-profits that work tirelessly to help ex-offenders return to society and remain free. But non-profits are limited by ever-shrinking budgets to make the broad, societal impact they’d dearly love to accomplish. I believe that a profit motive will drive sustainable engagement and results. My goal is to facilitate the hiring of one million ex-offenders.

But like many business models, the private prison industry is driven by repeat business. That means mean and women returning to prison after they’re released (or never released at all). Counseling, job readiness training, certifications―-all that we expect of a sincere rehabilitative effort—are anathema to an industry that counts on recidivism to drive quarterly profit projections.

I have worked closely with many jail and prison administrators—wardens, program directors, reentry specialists—and I have always been taken by how uniformly professional and committed they are. They truly wish to touch lives and make a difference. While news headlines frequently portray correctional officers—guards, if you will—as hulking, sadistic brutes, the other, professional side of a typical federal, state or local facility is staffed by people who sincerely wish they won’t see an inmate return.

The criminal justice system is a complicated, living and breathing beast, violently imperfect but also genuinely well-intentioned. Answers are not as simple as Mr. Trump would like to believe.

But when I visit groups of inmates, I bring a surprisingly positive message. Things are getting better. Sentences are getting shorter. Jobs are becoming available. And the bad guys are being pushed out, little by little. It’s a start.

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