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Letter to the Editor: Personhood must take precedence over profit - Vote yes to divest from private prisons

By guest contributor Alice Mar-Abe ’18

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On April 24th, 2014, 26-year-old Madaline Pitkin died alone on the floor of her solitary cell at the Washington County Jail in Oregon. She was a young woman from north Portland who’d gotten addicted to heroin at the age of 24 but had been trying to get clean.

She was arrested for possession at a traffic stop seven days earlier. Once in prison, she quickly began to experience the typical symptoms of heroin withdrawal — aches, tremors, runny nose, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, exhaustion, an endless craving for the drug. Her condition worsened day by day as her medication plan failed her and she grew weaker, more emaciated and more unstable.

Pitkin filled out a total of four medical request forms during those seven days. The final one read, “This is a 3rd or 4th call for help. I haven’t been able to keep food, liquids, meds down in 6 days . . . I feel like I am very close to death. Can’t hear, seeing lights, hearing voices. Please help me.”

The next morning at 10:00 am, she collapsed in her cell and could not be revived.

Although she was supposed to have been seen by nurses for seven days,according to The Oregonian in their investigation, none of the medical staff managed to give her nutrition, liquids or medicine intravenously, an intervention that could have saved her life.

Pitkin’s death occurred under the oversight of Corizon Health, the corporation with which the Washington County Jail contracts all of its health care services. Corizon calls itself “the nation’s leader in correctional health care.”They operate in 429 facilities across 25 states, and according to their website, they “improve the health and safety of our patients, reduce recidivism and better the communities where we live and work.”

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Can these three claims really be compatible, or even true?

The first claim is blatantly false. Madaline Pitkin’s suffering was not unique; in fact, she was one of nine people who died in the custody of Oregon prisons in 2014. Private prisons and private contractors are notorious violators of basic human rights: these groups are first and foremost companies, highly incentivized to cut costs in any way they can. The first concessions come at the expense of those who have no power to protest: the prisoners. John Oliver’s incisive segment on private prisons featured a woman whose surgical care consisted of pouring kitchen sugar into her open wounds.

As for Corizon’s second claim, private prison corporations and contractors have no incentive to reduce recidivism for similar reasons, namely profit. Since they are paid for every bed they fill, their contracts with states usually include lockup quotas, which mandate that the state keep the prison filled to a certain capacity, sometimes as high as 90 percent. This guarantees the prison company a minimum profit. If the lockup quota is not met, they can sue the state for not sentencing enough people.

Finally, if recidivism rates stay high, “the communities where we live and work” will never heal as long as community members are trapped in a revolving door going in and out of prison. Perhaps Corizon was referring to the communities where their employees live and work, rather than the communities most impacted by mass incarceration — the ones where poor people of color live and work.

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The USG referendum on divestment, as proposed by Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR), would sever Princeton’s financial ties with companies like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), as well as companies that exclusively contract with prisons and jails. In the last decade, GEO Group and CCA have spent $45 million lobbying for policies that further mass incarceration.

Regardless of your opinion of the American criminal justice system and regardless of your political affiliation, it is clear that our current reliance on private prisons is not working. In our desire to fix the problem of overcrowded prisons with skyrocketing costs, we’ve created an imperfect system that incentivizes maltreatment of over 2.2 million incarcerated people. If the government sentences someone to time in prison, it assumes responsibility for the well-being of that person during their sentence.

The punishment of a prison sentence is supposed to be the restriction of free movement in the world. The punishment does not include torture through denial of adequate food and water, exploitation through virtually unpaid, forced labor or potential death mid-sentence due to a lack of basic health care.

We must ask ourselves whether we, as a university community, can claim to be “in the nation’s service” when our own institution condones others’ suffering in the name of profit margins. Divestment is not purely symbolic; it is an important step in the growing movement that refuses to recognize this exploitation as a legitimate or respectable way to make money.

If private prison companies are willing to use their money to create policies that turn people into vehicles for profit, we can use ours to say “no more.”

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