This month’s “Books Sandwiched In” – Wednesday, May 22, noon-1 p.m. at the East Tennessee History Center auditorium, 601 S. Gay St. – should be a doozy. Julie Gautreau, a staff attorney with the Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office, will present a compelling overview of the ethics of private correctional facilities.
The book she has chosen for what she hopes will be an interactive conversation is “American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey Into the Business of Punishment,” by Shane Bauer, an investigative reporter who got himself hired by a private prison and has written about what he saw, heard and learned there.
Bauer had only to pass the most cursory of background checks to get a $9 per hour job as a correctional officer at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, La., a for-profit prison owned by Nashville-based Community Corrections of America (now rebranded as Core Civic).
Gautreau, a public defender since 1991, was a founder of Face-to-Face Knox, dedicated to restoring in-person family visitation in local jails. In 2014, Knox County Commission approved the sheriff’s plan to contract with Securus Technologies and JailATM to set up a system of video visits. Since that time, inmates, who typically represent the most impoverished segment of society, are allowed remote “visits” with their families via laptop for a $5.99 per-visit fee, or without cost from a kiosk at the jail.
The sheriff’s office says video technology cuts down on security risks, a contention Gautreau disputes because the detention center has a secure upper deck that was designed to allow face-to-face visitation between inmates and family members.
Gautreau volunteers to assist undocumented immigrants and attends public meetings to speak out against the practice of using inmates and their families as profit centers. She plans to let the audience direct the discussion, which will likely deal with issues of privatization and why it is inhumane.
“The book really goes into the background of how this industry arose out of slavery,” she said. “I want to get a conversation started and build a theme through that. … In the past, flawed as the correctional system was, (inmates) were wards of the state. … Now they’re being commoditized.”
Commodification, the practice of turning inmates’ families into profit centers, is creeping into local, county-run jails, Knox County included. Inmates are fed sparingly at mealtime and overcharged for commissary food, toiletries, haircuts and shaves. They pay jacked-up prices for phone calls, email privileges and visitations. They are billed for medical and dental care.
A former inmate who served three months in the women’s section of the Roger Wilson Detention Facility confirms Gautreau’s observations:
“The person that visits has to schedule it on certain days of the week. There are different days for each pod, and there are four pods for women. Video visitations are 20 or 30 minutes long and they put you in a private room. The person visiting has to go to a separate part of the jail, and you can hear and see all the other people in the background. If the visitor doesn’t show up, they don’t tell you. I’d just sit in a room and wait. …”
She paid $20 to $30 per week for phone calls and branded commissary prices “freaking outrageous. Ramen noodles are, like, $3. They upcharged everything.”
She said she was overcharged for a thermal shirt because “they keep it so cold in there. You’re constantly freezing.”
Meal portions are extremely small, she said.
“You’ve got women going around begging for food – ‘Hey, if you’re not going to eat that?’ There’s a lot of people who just don’t get commissary. A lot of them are drug addicts or homeless and just don’t have any money. I’ve had people beg me for phone calls, and I’ve given away my own commissary. But you have to watch your back. There’s a lot of drama and fights in there. When the pods are open, there’ve been incidents where girls would sneak into other people’s rooms and steal commissary. People are literally starving.”
Gautreau hopes to bring these issues to the May 22 discussion.
“What I know is that this system needs to be changed and overhauled. At a minimum, it should not be an excruciating experience, and it shouldn’t be an opportunity for people to come in and exploit that to make money.”
“Books Sandwiched In” is a monthly lunch program sponsored by Friends of the Knox County Public Library.