Learning from My Students

By Sheila Kennedy

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on April 24, 2015]

We’re at that point in the semester when my students in Law and Public Policy are doing their team presentations–sharing the results of research via Power Points and mock debates. More than one of these presentations has taught me something I didn’t know. (This is one of the “perks” of the profession, actually–you learn a lot when you teach.) 

One of the teams chose to research prison privatization, a subject about which I know very little. 

They began by noting that private prisons were rare prior to 1980, that they became more common in the eighties, and that between 1990 and 2009, America experienced a 1600% increase in its prison population. Given the significant sums of money involved, they wondered whether this dramatic increase in incarceration might be at least partially explained by contractual obligations to fill cells in those proliferating private facilities. 

Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group dominate the private prison industry, and according to the students’ research, the industry is very profitable. (Corrections Corporation of America had a share price of $1 in 2000; in 2013 it was $34.34.) In one representative contract, in Tennessee, CCA was guaranteed an occupancy rate of 90%, a guarantee that required frequent moves of inmates out of public facilities and into the private ones. Both the guarantee and the frequent shuffling of prisoners are evidently common. 

You don’t have to be a bleeding heart to recognize that inmates–large numbers of whom have not been convicted of violent crimes– are entitled to be treated humanely. The number of fines, lawsuits and investigations into the management of these facilities strongly suggests that the profit motive takes precedence over the provision of basic medical care, nutrition and even physical safety. 

Where there’s profit, there’s usually politics, and private prisons are no exception. 

In 2013, the Indiana General Assembly undertook to modernize the state’s criminal code. One of the original changes would have reduced penalties for possession of small amounts of pot; however, Governor Pence intervened, insisting that penalties for marijuana possession and dealing be increased rather than decreased. 

According to a news article at the time, 
One proposed change expected to be voted on Thursday would make possession of between about one third of an ounce and 10 pounds of marijuana the lowest-level felony rather than the highest-level misdemeanor. Indiana is eighth on the list of states where GEO does its spending, as it’s sunk more than $60,000 into state elections there. It specifically contributed $12,500 to the 2012 Pence campaign, which doesn’t seem like much without context. That contribution made GEO one of Pence’s top 30 corporate contributors, ranking in front of US Steel Corp, Caterpillar, and Koch Industries. 
When prisons are profit centers, the incentives are all perverse.


Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana's ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI's Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..

May Your Tribe Decrease

By Sheila Kennedy

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on April 23, 2015]

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In a recent column, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post reported on a social science study that came to some surprising (and depressing) conclusions:
Up until the mid-1980s, the typical American held the view that partisans on the other side operated with good intentions. But that has changed in dramatic fashion, as a study published last year by Stanford and Princeton researchers demonstrates. 
It has long been agreed that race is the deepest divide in American society. But that is no longer true, say Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, the academics who led the study. Using a variety of social science methods (for example, having study participants review résumés of people that make both their race and party affiliation clear), they document that “the level of partisan animus in the American public exceeds racial hostility.” 
Americans now discriminate more on the basis of party than on race, gender or any of the other divides we typically think of — and that discrimination extends beyond politics into personal relationships and non-political behaviors. Americans increasingly live in neighborhoods with like-minded partisans, marry fellow partisans and disapprove of their children marrying mates from the other party, and they are more likely to choose partners based on partisanship than physical or personality attributes.
The tendency to live among people who share one’s general outlook was highlighted in Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort, and together with partisan redistricting–gerrymandering–it has resulted in the election of lawmakers whose only allegiance is to the deep-red or deep-blue character of their districts; that in turn has made it virtually impossible for “establishment” politicians to control them. The intransigence (and far too often, blinding stupidity) of these hyper-partisan warriors feeds the tribalism described in the study.
 
The authors of the study reportedly had no suggestions for how we might close the partisan gap.
 
In their great 2004 rant, The Urban Archipelago, the editors of The Stranger  looked at the electoral map and saw red and blue America as a rural/urban phenomenon–islands of blue floating in seas of red. They had lots of theories about why city folks were “blue,” and the whole essay is a good read, but if they are correct–and subsequent elections have confirmed the archipelago’s persistence–the ultimate remedy for our partisan tribalism may be demographic: the U.S. population has been migrating steadily to more metropolitan areas and hollowing out great swathes of rural America.
 
According to the theory, at least, neighbors are less likely to demonize each other.


Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana's ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI's Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..