For years, civil rights advocates and educators have struggled to reverse a troubling trend in the nation's educational system: As schools become increasingly punitive, students — particularly students of color, students with special needs, and students from low-income or foster households — are being pushed out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system.
An increasingly large number of kids are getting suspended, expelled, and even detained long term for infractions as seemingly minor as bringing nail clippers or scissors to school. Others are getting arrested or detained merely for disruptive behavior.
In 2011, about 31 percent of the nation's 61,423 juvenile delinquents were committed to private detention facilities, according to census data from that year. Federal data does not specify how many of those private centers were for-profit and how many were nonprofit, but according to the ACLU, at least 17 states are home to for-profit juvenile detention centers. Florida has completely privatized the management of its residential juvenile detention centers.
And the juvenile justice system doesn't exactly encourage high achievement among at-risk kids.
According to a May study by the New York City School-Justice Partnership Task Force, students who are suspended from or arrested at school are more likely to drop out, more likely to face future involvement in the juvenile or criminal justice systems, and are subsequently at higher risk than their peers to have "poor life outcomes." Among those "poor life outcomes": future incarceration. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a 2009 study from Northeastern University found that among 16- to 24-year-olds, incarceration rates were 63 percent higher for high school dropouts than for college graduates.
That's among the reasons why a New York Times editorial published this spring called for an overhaul to a system that has become unnecessarily and detrimentally punitive.
School officials across the country responded to a surge in juvenile crime during the 1980s and the Columbine High School shootings a decade later by tightening disciplinary policies and increasing the number of police patrolling public schools. One unfortunate result has been the creation of a repressive environment in which young people are suspended, expelled, or even arrested over minor misbehaviors — like talking back or disrupting class — that would once have been handled by the principal.
The policies have not made schools safer. However, by criminalizing routine disciplinary problems, they have damaged the lives of many children by making them more likely to drop out and entangling them, sometimes permanently, in the criminal justice system. [The New York Times]
In other words, kids are certainly not profiting from what's known as the school-to-prison pipeline. So who is? In many cases, for-profit youth detention centers, whose parent corporations are rewarded with hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of contracts. And they're not exactly in the business of helping kids.
The Huffington Post, in a two-part investigation published this week, examined a private network of for-profit youth prisons called Youth Services International (YSI), and found rampant evidence of abuse, violence, and squalid conditions at YSI's facilities.
Here's the Huffington Post's Chris Kirkham:
Those held at YSI facilities across the country have frequently faced beatings, neglect, sexual abuse, and unsanitary food over the past two decades, according to a HuffPost investigation that included interviews with 14 former employees and a review of thousands of pages of state audits, lawsuits, local police reports, and probes by state and federal agencies. Out of more than 300 institutions surveyed, a YSI detention center in Georgia had the highest rate of youth alleging sexual assaults in the country, according to a recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. [Huffington Post]
Despite recurring complaints about these conditions, Kirkham argues, lax state regulations combined with a certain amount of political wheel-greasing have kept the company thriving:
Florida's permissive oversight has allowed Youth Services International to essentially game the system since entering the state more than a decade ago. Despite contractual requirements that the company report serious incidents at its facilities, YSI routinely fails to document problems, sanitizes those reports it does submit, and pressures inmates to withhold evidence of mistreatment, according to interviews with 14 former YSI employees.
In Florida, [top YSI executive James Slattery's] companies have exploited lax state oversight while leaning on powerful allies inside the government to keep the contracts flowing. Slattery, his wife, Diane, and other executives have been prodigious political rainmakers in Florida, donating more than $400,000 to state candidates and committees over the last 15 years, according to HuffPost's review. The recipient of the largest share of those dollars was the Florida Republican Party, which took in more than $276,000 in that time. Former Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, an avid supporter of prison privatization, received more than $15,000 from company executives during state and federal races. [Huffington Post]
Advocates of the for-profit prison industry have long argued that privatizing the nation's incarceration system reduces costs for states and taxpayers alike, all while providing incentives for the creation of better facilities at lower costs. (YSI executives did not comment during the HuffPost investigation, other than a statement from a senior vice president who cast YSI as "the best operators in the state of Florida" that has been hampered by only "occasional issues" and "overwhelmingly receive positive reports.")
But Dan Gelber, a former Florida senator and state representative, cited a different set of motives.
"We regularly hire companies that have abysmal track records of performance, but great track records of political campaign contributions," he told The Huffington Post.