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Biden moves to end privatization in justice system; so must Saranac Lake

On Tuesday, President Biden called for an end to the use of private prisons in the Department of Justice. I’m glad to hear we’re taking this step as a country because it’s heinous that people profit off of incarceration. But this is also a good time to highlight the growth of privatization across the policing and prison industrial complex, which will not be impacted by this executive order.

Here in Saranac Lake, for example, the village has hired Lexipol, a private firm that has repeatedly come under scrutiny for its use-of-force policies following officer-involved shootings of unarmed black men. Lexipol has been hired to rewrite our police policy and local policing manuals. Meanwhile, communities and activists are calling for democratization and a reimagining of justice systems at local, state and national levels. Profit-driven systems will always be an enemy to democratic processes and the creative work required to actually build safe, diverse and caring communities. As my friend and colleague Joseph Henderson, of Saranac Lake, wrote in a September 2020 letter to the editor, “I was disturbed by recent news that the board chose to contract police policy out to a private corporation rather than entrust their own community with the vital democratic practice of government oversight. … Outsourcing policy to a private company shows a kind of denigration of democracy.” Let’s take a deeper look at why Biden signed this recent EO, what it means and how the same logic of ending privatization in our justice system should be applied here in Saranac Lake.

In August 2016, before the end of President Obama’s second term, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would phase out the use of privately managed federal prisons. The announcement came shortly after Mother Jones magazine published a scathing expose by investigative journalist Shane Bauer, and the release of acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary “13th.” Bauer spent four months working as a prison guard in Winnfield, Louisiana, beginning in 2014. Of his experience, Bauer wrote, “When I drive home, I wonder who I am becoming. I feel ashamed of my lack of self-control, my growing thirst for punishment and vengeance.” Bauer left the position when his identity as a journalist was discovered. A few weeks later, the Correction Corporation of America ended its contract with Louisiana’s Department of Corrections. LA DOC had raised a number of concerns about CCA’s compliance, among them that “a bonus paid to Winn’s warden [caused] neglect of basic needs” — for instance, making people who were incarcerated pay for toilet paper, and explicitly telling guards it was more cost-effective to let inmates kill each other rather than intervene in a fight. In his 2018 book, “American Prison,” Bauer described private prisons as “the latest chapter of a story that goes back to the foundation of this country, wherein white people continue to reinvent ways to cash in on captive human beings.” Ava DuVernay’s widely acclaimed Netflix film “13th,” similarly traced the profit motive of American chattel slavery into the modern-day prison and detention industrial complexes. Corrections Corporation of America, according to Mother Jones, reported $1.9 billion in revenue in 2015. At the time, CCA was running 61 facilities in the country, and despite a number of lawsuits they promised investors that “no pending cases would seriously affect” their bottom-line. The Obama administration’s call to close privately managed prisons, now re-upped by President Biden’s recent executive action, will put an end to a very small segment of America’s federal prison system — 14,000 of 152,000 people currently incarcerated in the federal DOJ are in privately managed facilities. It will NOT stop corporations like CCA from working with state-level corrections departments or county jails. It will NOT stop corporations like CCA from continuing or expanding work with the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. It will NOT stop far reaching profiteering that is rampant across the corrections and law enforcement sector.

The reality is that Biden’s executive action will leave a number of doors open for corporations to continue reaping profits through the processes of policing, incarcerating and detaining Americans, primarily Americans of color. His action does, however, have “privatization” grabbing headlines once again. We are acknowledging as a nation that for-profit prisons result in the widespread neglect of basic human needs.

So, let’s talk about the for-profit police consulting firm that just rode into our little village, Lexipol. Critics rightly posit that Lexipol, like CCA, is “is committed to its bottom line rather than transformed policing: The policies it sells tend to be conservative interpretations of the law that prescribe the bare minimum to keep police departments from getting sued,” as Alice Speri wrote for the Intercept in an August 2020 story. This is not surprising. Activists and journalists have been pointing out the harm caused by outsourcing systems of “justice,” and prioritizing profits over people, for A LONG TIME. Our president, Joe Biden, is not nearly as progressive as I am, and yet he has taken this first step to root out the perils of profiteering in the federal DOJ. We in Saranac Lake must follow his lead and drop our association with a for-profit company with dubious connections and a history of amplifying supremacist messages, like support for Kyle Rittenhouse (outlined in a September letter to this very newspaper) — a company that will continue to prioritize its own bottom line over democratic participation, diversity, safety and inclusion in the village we call home. I’ll reiterate the still-unanswered questions of my friend Joseph Henderson to finish this commentary: “Why did [Saranac Lake’s] trustees think an outside private company with a dubious track record would be better equipped to handle policy than their own community? As someone who lives in the village and pays a substantial percentage of taxes toward funding our police, I’d like an answer to this question. … With democracy in decline these days, perhaps we might think about being more, not less, democratic here?”

Zohar Gitlis lives in Paul Smiths and is co-chair of the High Peaks DSA, the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

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