David Goodell, a halfway house fugitive accused of killing an ex-girlfriend, pleaded guilty on June 20 to murder charges, ending a case that highlighted problems in New Jersey’s troubled halfway house system. Goodell escaped in 2010 from the custody of a Newark halfway house run by Community Education Centers (CEC), the private company that dominates the state’s $100 million halfway house system. The privately run facilities are bigger than many state prisons but have little of the security.
As we wrote last Sept. 24, halfway houses were intended to offer job training programs and counseling services, but they have long been plagued by drugs, violence and escapes, according to a 10-month investigation published in The New York Times. One article was about Delaney Hall in Newark, where one or two low-wage, unarmed workers typically supervise 170 inmates, where robbery, sexual assault and gang activity is so bad that inmates regularly ask to be returned to prison, where they feel safer. Another covered a gruesome murder made possible by unchecked gang activity, inadequately trained staff and a culture of fear and compliance among nongang-affiliated inmates.
Approximately 5,100 inmates have escaped from privatized halfway houses in New Jersey since 2005, often during work-release programs. Some had committed horrific crimes. This raises questions about the screening process and the reasons for moving prisoners to halfway houses run by contractors.
CEC is a powerful political player in New Jersey, donating to both Democrats and Republicans, and has connections to elected officials from top to bottom across the state.
The promise of privatized prisons is that they are cheaper for the government than building and staffing its own facilities because the contractor operates within a fixed price and assumes the risk of rising costs. In practice, the principal cost saving comes from staffing the prison with nonunion employees who do not enjoy civil-service benefits. Whatever the contractor can save on total wages goes straight to the bottom line, which gives incentive to skimp on the numbers and qualifications of the guards and supervisors. The same incentive operates for other elements of confinement, such as food and medical care. Imprisonment for profit also creates a perverse economic and political incentive to imprison for the benefit of the custodians.
The consequences of inadequate security fall on local government, which is faced with increased expenditures resulting from the need to track down escapees, investigate crimes and suppress disturbances often organized in protest of subhuman conditions.
Imprisonment for crime is one of the core government functions, and the Eighth Amendment requires that prisoners be provided with adequate food, medical care and security from the violence of other inmates. These constitutional responsibilities and the problems with privatization can be dealt with, but only through contract provisions that prescribe the conditions of confinement in detail and hold the contractors financially responsible for all escapes, assaults and other failures of custody.
We suggest, again, that the Legislature look into charges by Bronislaw Szulc, a former senior state official who said he was told “not to go after things so hard” when he filed reports to the Corrections Department documenting drug use, violence and lax security at a facility in Trenton. Current and former workers said they falsified record to make it appear inmates had received social services that were never provided.
Soon after the Times articles were published, the Legislature held two days of hearings on security and oversight in the halfway house system. Afterward came introduction of a package of more than a dozen bills that would reshape the halfway house system, increasing regulation and overhauling the contracts with CEC.
None of these bills have been approved, but according to a June 21 Times article, Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee Chairman Charles Mainor said, “They’re not dead, we will be revisiting those bills and bringing them forward.”
Because the concept of privatized prisons leaves to the contractor all decisions about what will be spent on staffing — allowing the smallest number of untrained guards to work without any civil service benefits and the least expensive services to meet inmates’ minimum needs — it is doubtful whether increasing regulations and tinkering with provider contracts can work any real improvement. The fact that none of these pending bills have been approved suggests that the existing contractor’s extensive political relationships may make it invulnerable to any meaningful change. It is unfortunate that those who most suffer from the existing systems are the least likely to invoke the necessary public sympathy to create meaningful change.
Our conclusion is that enough is enough. It’s time for a change. It’s time to eliminate profit-making penal institutions.