This weekend, Pope Francis will visit Philadelphia’s Curran-Fromhold Jail as part of his visit to the United States. In addition to severe overcrowding, Curran-Fromhold inmates also have to contend with a bevy of private firms that make money providing services inside the jail. While it is nominally a correctional facility, life inside Curran-Fromhold is shaped at least as much by the profit motive as by the spirit of rehabilitation and penance.
The jail’s commissary system is run by The Keefe Group, which makes its money through both direct sales and the fees it charges to family and friends who deposit money into an inmate’s commissary account. The company, owned by the same family that runs Enterprise Rent-A-Car, brought in $41 million after expenses in 2012 on $375 million in sales nationwide.
Its inmates eat food sourced and served by Aramark, the food service conglomerate that is also selling the official merchandise for the Pope’s visit to Philadelphia. Aramark cites its prisons contracts as a source of stability and sales growth in a much broader portfolio. The company’s kitchens have an ugly track record in recent years, linked to food safety violations, nutritional shortfalls, and security breaches at various prisons.
The infirmary at Curran-Fromhold is another money-maker for people far outside the jail’s walls. Corizon is the largest private prison health care provider in the America, but its operations are haunted by wrongful death lawsuits and multiple allegations that it neglects inmate-patients’ medical needs and violates their rights and bodies. The company has lost contracts in Maine, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee in recent years, and seemed poised to win the District of Columbia’s business until public outcry scuttled the deal.
The jail’s other vendors have skeletons in their closets too. Curran-Fromhold inmates rely on a pair of companies called JPay and Global Tel*Link (GTL) for communicating with the outside world and receiving money transfers. Until three months ago, JPay had claimed to own the contents of inmates’ correspondence. The company treated everything from casual conversations to artistic output to journalistic interactions as its intellectual property until May of this year, when it changed its policies after the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote about its practices. When JPay was acquired by another vendor this spring, the Securus Technologies presentation on the deal described the American correctional system as “a large, recession-resistant and stable market.”
GTL has used the mini-monopolies its contracts grant it in individual facilities to charge prisoners and their families “more for a single 15-minute phone call than an entire month of basic phone service,” according to one family’s class-action lawsuit against the company.
When the Federal Communications Commission finally interceded to cap rates for prison phone service, the private equity holding company that owned GTL decided to sell the firm instead of continuing to do business without gouging prisoners. The profit to investors from similar deals in the past has registered in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Critics of such business models will be hoping Francis’ visit catalyzes an even broader populist movement against the casual conversion of public prisons into private moneymakers. Religious organizations within Catholicism and outside it are already pushing for reform to prison administrative practices like solitary confinement that the Pope has likened to torture. The American political system is starting to turn away from outmoded approaches to crime and punishment, opening the door for reforms to courts, sentencing practices, and prisons themselves.
But the economic exploitation that goes hand in hand with those policies has at least a decent chance to survive the current wave of reform energy. The prison industry is among the most generous donors to elected officials and most lavish lobbyists on legislation.