Former Pennsylvania judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. is going to spend a lot of time in jail. Considering the nature of his conviction, this fact is a morsel of irony. Ciavarella was found guilty of racketeering for sending thousands of youths—some of whom did not even have legal representation—to for-profit prisons in exchange for millions in kickbacks.
Ciavarella got to taste the flipside of the justice system when his conviction was handed down in February, and last month his appeal was denied. So much for the rich and powerful white dude being able to manipulate the levers of justice to avoid the consequences of his actions.
One can imagine most of Ciavarella’s time in prison (he was sentenced to 28 years) will be spent in an isolation unit. No doubt some of the youths he sold to the prison industry have relatives among the general population—just being real—and even if not, one of the inmates might take it upon himself to ventilate the former judge for reputation’s sake.
As to the lives he tried to destroy in order to line his greedy little pockets, the State of Pennsylvania has overturned over 4,000 of the convictions. Those kids can’t get that time back, nor can they un-have the experience of being processed through the ruthless system. But at least they have a chance to recover from this corrupt travesty.
It is heartening to see the justice system in Pennsylvania responding to this scandal in a proactive manner and hanging Mr. Ciavarella out to dry like he deserves. But one can’t help by feel as if this is another situation where the perpetrator’s primary crime was getting caught.
Justice remains elusive for countless other individuals around the country. The growth of the private prison industry over the past few decades has created some seriously perverse incentives.
Most of the time the process is not nearly as blatant as that perpetuated by Ciavarella, and involves “tough on crime” initiatives backed by coalitions of prison guard unions, astroturfed “citizen groups,” and, of course, politicians who are ideologically and financially simpatico with the prison industry. Writing the checks that keep the whole thing afloat are corporations like Nashville-based Corrections Corp of America—the nation’s largest operator of private prisons—and The Geo Group, Inc., operating from the banana republic of Florida.
Caught in the gears of the machine are people who, whatever their mistakes, often hardly deserve to have their lives wrecked beyond repair. Especially considering the well-known fallibility of the justice system when it comes to only convicting the truly guilty.
Since 1989, when the first person was exonerated based on DNA evidence, there have been 308 such exonerations in the United States. 308 out of millions of inmates over a period of 24 years might seem insignificant—if basic human dignity isn’t factored in—but considering 18 of the 308 people exonerated were on death row, and a further 16 had been found guilty of capital crimes and sentenced to life in prison, the problem becomes deeper than the surface number.
On average, the 308 exonerees served 13.6 years. 4,135 years total among all of them. That’s serious shit.
We can’t expect perfection from the justice system. It’s a grey area by its very nature. If things were cut and dry, we wouldn’t need a justice system in the first place. But it does need to be transparent, so when someone is wrongfully convicted, they have as much of a chance as possible of having their situation addressed as quickly as possible.
And while incarceration will be a necessary component of society for some time, it should be an option of last resort. If it’s a profitable endeavor, you’re doing it wrong. Private non-profits might have a role to play as we move into this brave new world of fiscally neutered state governments, but the shadowy machinations of publicly traded corporations are not serving the public good.
Incarceration represents a failure, even in cases of clear guilt. The damage done by whatever crime has been committed cannot be undone by locking up the perpetrator. At best, incarceration serves to protect society from individuals who, for whatever reason, can’t live among the herd. An argument can be made for a deterrent effect, but considering the predictable patterns of who exactly gets incarcerated, its value in that regard is debatable.
When prison populations became—thanks in no small part to Reagan and his War on Drugs—a matter for the crushing political sway of corporate balance sheets and stock prices, the train went off the tracks. The priority became housing the maximum number of inmates for the least amount of overhead, and everything from zoning policy to law enforcement procedure to sentencing guidelines were adjusted to reflect the new reality.
Now, the prison-industrial complex warily eyes the immigration debate, as any major reform threatens to cut off a lucrative revenue stream: the detainment of undocumented immigrants. And whether you’re talking about families being torn apart or young lives being wrecked (as was the case with the corruption in Pennsylvania), it amounts to yet another way our society allows a corporate faction to brutalize our own citizens.
It’s high time the curtain was drawn back on these modern day slave traders.