Folsom Prison Blues

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“I hear the train a comin’
It’s rolling round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when,
I’m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a rollin’ on down to San Antone.”

Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash

Last week The US Department of Justice announced that it was to initiate a plan that would phase out the use of private prisons. The announcement dealt a significant blow to for-profit companies currently running private prisons in the US, most notably Correction Corp of America, which saw its stock slide 40% last Thursday.

According to Sally Yates, the Deputy Attorney General, the initiatives released last week, will hope to “reduce the total private prison population to less than 14,200 inmates” by May of 2017, a substantial decrease from the 30,000 inmates housed in private prisons in 2013. The initiatives also hope to cease the use of at least three private facilities over the next year.

Ms. Yates recognised the “important role” private prisons had played during a “difficult period” between 1980 and 2013, when soaring crime rates created an inmate housing problem in the public prison sector. In 2013 around 15% of the country’s 220,000 inmates were housed in private prisons. However, since 2013 the Department of Justice launched a mass over hall of the prison system to reverse a policy of mass incarceration.

With the declining number of inmates, the Department of Justice launched a review into the feasibility and effectiveness of privately run prison facilities culminating in last Thursday’s announcement. Ms. Yates declared that privately run facilities “compare poorly” to public facilities, failing to “provide the same level of correctional services, programmes and resources”. Ms. Yates also added that private facilities did “not save substantially on costs” compared to state run institutions. A report published last month by Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s Inspector General, also found that private prisons, in comparison to public prisons, had proved to be more violent and problematic, including an increase in violent assaults, lockdowns and the discovery of contraband material.

Representatives of the companies that run private facilities have criticised the shortcomings of the Department of Justice’s announcement, with Jonathan Burns, a Director of Public Affairs for Correction Corp of America, claiming that the reasons behind the decision “simply don’t match up to the numerous independent studies”.

On January 13th 1968, Folsom Prison played host to arguably the most iconic and innovative live album recording in history when Johnny Cash recorded At Folsom Prison, in which the song Folsom Prison Blues headlined. Despite its pop-culture fame, Folsom is actually a shining example of a state-run correctional facility. Not only is it California’s second oldest prison, but it is also one of the nation’s first maximum security prison built after the era of the California gold rush. Nowadays, Folsom primarily houses medium security inmates, offering ‘rehabilitative programs to include academic courses and career technical education”.

Folsom prison’s performance reinforces the initiatives announced by the Department of Justice, and proves that state-run prisons are capable of housing inmates in the US without the need for private sector involvement. For the moment, it seems Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group, and Management & Training Corporation have all been served life sentences and are now stuck in Folsom Prison. As of last Thursday their profits train has run out of steam and they aren’t likely to see the sunshine ever again.


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