Private prisons are a controversial subject. Prison—by its very nature—is not designed to be a pleasant experience. However, as a society we do expect that basic human rights are respected and that there is some dignity for inmates and accountability for the prison management. The very concept of making a profit off of incarcerating human beings is offensive. VICE tackles the issues of private prisons and some of the alleged abuses and violations that take place there in an episode airing this Sunday on Showtime.
Generally speaking, I write about technology—not prisons or investigative news shows. What makes this story unique to me—and the reason I find it interesting and want to share it—is that it is the very lack of technology within the walls of these private prisons that seems to allow the abuses to occur and make it significantly more challenging to prove or address.
ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) also uses private prisons as immigrant detention facilities. Hopefully that won’t last long, though. President Biden signed an executive order directing the Department of Justice to phase out the use of private prisons.
Imprisoning individuals should be a method of last resort, and the goal should be rehabilitation and helping the inmates return to and become contributing members of society. When a company profits based on maximizing the number of people incarcerated, that profit motive corrupts the system.
In this exclusive clip provided by Showtime, investigative journalist David Noriega speaks with Jose Tapate, a former inmate at Adolanto—a private prison—about how he was treated. Jose filed a number of official grievances regarding poor treatment, and had to involve the Mexican Consulate in order to receive treatment following a surgical procedure. Had the neglect continued, Jose likely could have died.
As a free citizen who has not been incarcerated, I (and you) are tracked, monitored, surveilled, and profiled almost everywhere we go. Every gas station, bank, grocery store, movie theater, and even many public streets have cameras monitoring and capturing activity. Police officers across the country wear bodycams to document interactions so we don’t have to accept the word of the police officer about what did or did not occur. Bystanders with cellphones capture activity on video all day, every day.
Within the walls of a private prison however, none of these things seems to exist, so how do we know what really goes on? Without video footage of prison life and/or bodycam footage from prison guards, there is no way to know for sure. Is the inmate or detainee lying to gain sympathy or preferential treatment? Or is the prison guard or prison management lying to cover up corruption and abuse occurring under their watch?
I often talk about the pervasive technology and constant “Big Brother” elements of life today as a potentially bad thing. There are pros—but also cons. When I look at a scenario like what VICE shares in this episode, though, I come to the conclusion that too much technology and monitoring is better than none at all.
ICE and The Geo Group—a private corporation that manages many private prisons—responded to proclaim that detainees are treated humanely and deny the allegations and assert that they treat inmates properly. But, the prisons are technology dead zones, so it’s generally an inmate or detainee’s word against the private prison management.
The episode of VICE premiers on Sunday at 8pm Eastern on Showtime. The episode covers some of the civil unrest in Hong Kong, and then dives into the topic of private prisons.