Tag Archives: privatization

Justice Dept. orders phasing out of private federal prisons

The U.S. Justice Department announced on Aug. 18 that it was ordering the federal Bureau of Prisons to begin phasing out the use of private prisons.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced the decision in a post on the Justice Department’s website. Yates said the order includes amending the solicitation for five private prisons in Texas from 10,800 prisoners to 3,600.

By May 2017, the Bureau of Prisons is expected to have 14,000 prisoners in private prisons, a decline of about 50 percent from a peak a few years ago. The bureau was instructed that as contracts come up for renewal, it is to reduce the numbers and, if possible, not renew the contracts.

David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, responded to the news in a press statement:  “This is an important and groundbreaking decision. With its announcement today, the Justice Department has made clear that the end of the Bureau of Prisons’ two-decade experiment with private prisons is finally in sight. The ACLU applauds today’s decision and calls on other agencies — both state and federal — to stop handing control of prisons to for-profit companies.”

Wade Henderson, president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the government is taking a “more humane and budget-conscious approach to dealing with one of the country’s most intractable problems.”

Henderson continued, “People in private prisons are more likely to be assaulted, have less access to basic rehabilitative services, and leave worse off than when they arrived.

“This is also a positive indication that the smart-on-crime approach to fair sentencing is slowly shrinking the largest prison population in human history.”

Another outspoken critic of the private prison system, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, applauded the decision.

In a statement issued on Aug. 18, Sanders, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, said, “Our criminal justice system is broken and in need of major reforms. The Justice Department’s plan to end its use of private prisons is an important step in the right direction. It is exactly what I campaigned on as a candidate for president.

“It is an international embarrassment that we put more people behind bars than any other country on earth. Due in large part to private prisons, incarceration has been a source of major profits to private corporations. Study after study after study has shown private prisons are not cheaper, they are not safer, and they do not provide better outcomes for either the prisoners or the state.

“We have got to end the private prison racket in America as quickly as possible. Our focus should be on keeping people out of jail and making sure they stay out when they are released.  This means funding jobs and education not more jails and incarceration.”

On the web

Read Sally Yates’ blog post here.

Northern Wisconsin favors public oversight of water supply

An overwhelming majority of residents in northern Wisconsin support public sector oversight of drinking water resources, according to a poll conducted by the Center for Rural Communities at Northland College.

Public sector includes publicly owned utilities, as well as tribal water utilities and systems managed by local, state, tribal and federal governments.

About 640 households in Ashland, Bayfield, Douglas and Iron counties participated in the survey, conducted after state lawmakers considered but did not pass legislation to ease the process of privatizing municipal water utilities.

About 83.9 percent of those surveyed said the public sector should be responsible for guaranteeing access to safe drinking water.

About 90 percent said the public sector should notify people of any changes to water quality or water treatment.

“Nearly all respondents — 97 percent — agreed with the statement ‘water is a human right and every person should have access to clean and safe drinking water,’” said Brandon Hofstedt, associate professor of sustainable community development at Northland and faculty director at the center.

About 55.8 percent of those polled said a private entity should not profit from supplying drinking water to households.

Also, about 75 percent said a private entity should not be allowed to extract and sell water from Lake Superior or an aquifer or tributary.

The people united show their power in Madison

“The people united will never be defeated,” according to a popular progressive protest chant. At least four recent victories in the Wisconsin Legislature show that “the people united” can indeed make a difference.

Since Republicans hold absolute power over Wisconsin government, it is almost a Sisyphean task to thwart GOP legislation.

So let’s recap: In recent days and months, Wisconsinites fought back successfully against several GOP-proposed laws. First was the so-called “potty bill.” It would have forced transgender people to use bathroom facilities that conform with their birth gender rather than their current gender expression. The law sparked demonstrations organized by Fair Wisconsin and other groups. It was widely ridiculed and strongly opposed by medical professionals and a number of school officials. It died.

Next, a ban on fetal tissue research lost steam after researchers complained it would have a chilling effect on developing life-saving treatments for a variety of serious physical conditions. When Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, a right-wing group that largely controls the state’s Republican Party, came out against it, the bill was finished.

But there’s more. Good old-fashioned grassroots demonstrations combined with online petitions and social media also managed to stop, at least for now, some bills that seemed destined to pass. 

As the legislative session drew to a close, Republicans were overwhelmed by opposition to a law facilitating corporate takeovers of local water utilities. Assembly Bill 554, proposed on behalf of Aqua America, Inc., a private, for-profit Pennsylvania company, would have taken away the say of citizens in the control of the utilities that provide their water. 

In the wake of public outrage, the Senate abruptly dropped the bill, at least for now.

Also apparently thwarted by the power of the people was AB 450. That bill was designed to ban so-called “sanctuary cities,” in which police are prohibited from reporting undocumented workers to federal immigration authorities during their investigations of crimes.

Immigration rights supporters said without the law, people couldn’t report crimes without fear of deportation. They said that would drive undocumented workers deeper into the shadows, preventing them from attending school and seeking emergency medical help for fear of being separated from their families.

Madison, Racine and Milwaukee County are considered sanctuary cities.

Led by the group Voces de la Frontera, about 20,000 people marched on Madison on Feb. 18 to protest the proposed law in what was called “A Day Without Latinos.” Work stoppages, especially on dairy farms, caused some disruption and reminded state employers of the value of the Latino workforce. On Twitter, protesters used the hashtag #daywithoutlatinos to share images of the protest and broaden its influence.

The Senate apparently has nixed that law, at least for now, unless the chamber takes it up in early March.

Unfortunately, protesters were unable to stop a bill that would keep Milwaukee and other cities from issuing local photo IDs to the homeless, undocumented workers and others who can’t obtain state IDs — thereby allowing disenfranchised people to open checking accounts and obtain certain public benefits. That bill shutting down local ID is headed for Gov. Scott Walker’s signature.

Even in the face of losses, though, the “sanctuary city” fight against the Legislature will have lasting political value, said Voces de la Frontera executive director Christine Neumann-Ortiz: “This battle is giving us the opportunity to build a statewide structure to organize the Latino vote that will challenge any candidate who is anti-immigrant in 2016 and beyond,” she said in a statement.

There is power in the people when we come together and take principled stands.

Our mission: To help build a strong, informed community; promote social equality and justice; support immigration and electoral reform; expose government secrets and call out political corruption; celebrate and support the arts; and foster appreciation and respect for the state’s extraordinary natural resources.

Survey: Privatized water systems charge 58 percent more

Food & Water Watch on Feb. 16 released a comprehensive review of the 500 largest U.S. community water systems that found that large, for-profit privately owned systems charge 58 percent more than large publicly owned systems.

An overwhelming majority of U.S. water customers — 87 percent — receive their water from a publicly owned, not-for-profit service provider. 

The same day the survey was released, Wisconsin senators were set to vote on a measure making it easier for the privatization of water systems in the state.

The Food & Water Watch survey also shows that water systems are publicly owned and operated in the 10 most affordable cities for water of the 500 systems surveyed.

As of January 2015, Phoenix enjoyed the most affordable household water use, while Flint, Michigan, was the most expensive — an anomaly given the problems that the city has faced under emergency management. In 2014, an emergency manager switched the Flint water supply from Detroit to the Flint River in a proposed cost-cutting effort—corroding pipes that have caused lead poisoning and a deadly legionella outbreak.

“From emergency management in Michigan to failed privatization experiments across the country, corporate influence has failed U.S. water systems,” said Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter. “Many of our community water systems are over 100 years old, and in desperate need of repair. Rather than running water systems like businesses, or worse, handing them over to corporations, we need increased federal investment in municipal water. With this federal funding, we can help avoid future infrastructure-related catastrophes.”

Other findings of the report include:

  • From 2007 to 2014, the portion of people with water service from a publicly controlled entity increased from 83 percent to 87 percent. 
  • Between 2007 and 2014, the number of private systems dropped seven percent, while the number of people served by privately owned systems fell by 18 percent (8 million people). 
  • The number of publicly owned systems remained steady, but overall added 24 million customers to their networks. 
  •  The average public water utility charged $316.20 for 60,000 gallons a year, while the average for-profit water company charged $500.96 for the same amount.
  • Private systems in New York and Illinois charge twice as much as not-for-profit public systems.
  • In Pennsylvania, private systems charge 84 percent more than public systems—$323 more a year, typically. 
  • Private systems in New Jersey charge 79 percent more—$230 more than their public counterparts. 

For-profit companies own 10 percent of U.S. community water systems, 90 percent of which serve fewer then 3,300 people.

In major cities, water is overwhelmingly controlled by public entities.

“Government utilities have a responsibility to promote and protect public health and safety, and are generally more responsive to community needs,” said Hauter. “More and more cities and towns are seeing that water is more efficiently and affordably delivered when it is controlled by a not-for-profit entity. Without shareholders expecting profits, public systems are less likely to cut corners on service, and excess funds are invested back into systems, not sent out of communities as dividend checks.” 

Big gulp: GOP advances water privatization

“Aqua America” sounds like a water park on the shore of a great lake.

Rather, Aqua America is the second-largest publicly traded water utility company in the United States, and some day the company — or Veolia or Suez — could take control of municipal water systems in Wisconsin. 

Republican lawmakers fast-tracked AB 554/SB 432, legislation that would diminish public influence and make it easier to privatize local water supplies.

Environmentalists in the state call the measure the “Water Privatization Bill.” The Assembly approved AB 554 on Jan. 12. A Senate floor vote had not been held as WiG went to press on Feb. 10.

Current state law allows for the privatization of systems provided citizens have a say.

The process currently works like this: A municipality must adopt an ordinance authorizing privatization, then secure approval from the state Public Service Commission and then put the proposal to the voters in a referendum.

In 2008 and 2009, Milwaukee officials considered privatizing the city’s water. A coalition of community leaders, environmental groups and unions — KPOW/Keep Public Our Water — fought the plan, which would have privatized Milwaukee’s water system for up to a century.

The new privatization bill puts the burden of bringing a referendum on citizens. A municipality would adopt an ordinance but a referendum wouldn’t be held unless citizens wage a successful petition drive. And, with no referendum, the PSC would approve privatization.

Democratic lawmakers worked through January to counter the measure and try to improve the bill. In a Senate committee vote in January, Sens. Chris Larson and Julie Lassa offered several unsuccessful amendments that would have reserved some control for local citizens.

Larson, in early February, also was working with Reps. Amanda Stuck, D-Appleton, and Jonathan Brostoff, D-Milwaukee, to advance a measure — LRB 4602/1 — intended to keep water and sewer utilities under local control.

“I am appalled that my colleagues across the aisle are trying to take Wisconsin down the dangerous path of privatizing water,” Brostoff said. “A one-time privatization scheme payoff pales in comparison to risking our public safety.”

Pushing privatization

Most Americans get their household water from publicly owned and operated service. 

The polls show most Americans want to keep these services and, in Wisconsin, there’s been no public outcry from city and county officials for legislative change.

“As a member of the Assembly Committee on Energy Utilities, I did not hear testimony from any municipal leader asking for expanding the ability of corporations to take over their water,” Stuck said. “Instead, what we heard was a desire to keep control of these vital utilities local, so that decisions about how to keep a cost-effective and safe water supply are made by the local community and not by the profit-seeking shareholders of private companies.”

So, what’s driving a legislative push for privatization?

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported in late January that AB 554, authored by Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva, and SB 432, written by Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, is akin to draft legislation — the Water/Wastewater Utility Public-Private Partnership Act — circulated by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

ALEC is a special interest group of businesses and politicians that has advanced a series of anti-immigrant, anti-voter, anti-choice and anti-environment measures. Much of ALEC’s funding comes from trade groups, corporations such as Exxon Mobil and right-wing organizations like the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation.

Proponents argue privatization is a solution for municipalities burdened by capital improvements to systems that have been under-funded due to years of deflated rates.

They also maintain that water utilities are businesses and companies can serve consumers better than government.

Some proponents of privatization illustrate their arguments by pointing to the water crisis in Michigan, where officials at nearly every level of government failed the people of Flint.

Those arguments, however, unleash a flood of opposing positions from those who see the cost-cutting profit motive as the underlying cause of the Flint crisis.

“The residents of Flint were stripped of their democratically elected authority and, in the name of saving a few dollars, have been forced to sacrifice their health in the process,” said the Rev. Allen Overton of Concerned Pastors for Social Action, part of a coalition seeking federal court intervention to secure safe water in Flint. “The community deserves accountability, transparency and justice, in addition to water that is safe to drink.”

Opposing privatization

“Government has a level of accountability to citizens that private companies do not,” stated Kerry Schumann, executive director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. 

She continued, “Think about when you have a problem with your phone service. You typically spend hours being passed from faceless person to computer system and back to another faceless person who could be anywhere in the world. Sometimes it takes days, weeks or more to solve the problem.

“Now imagine that water starts coming out of your tap brown, your family starts getting sick and you have to attempt to get help from a faceless, out-of-state private corporation that has no accountability to you or other voters living in the community. It’s bad enough running into this lack of responsiveness when you’re talking about a phone plan. The health of your family is certainly more important than phone service, and we should treat it that way.”

The league is on record as opposing the privatization bill, as are other leading environmental, consumer and good-government groups in the state. Opponents include the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, Clean Wisconsin, the state Sierra Club, Midwest Environmental Advocates and Milwaukee Riverkeeper.

“Not just across the country, but across the entire globe, water privatization has failed to increase the access to or quality of water supplies for communities time and time again,” read a statement from Milwaukee Riverkeeper intended to motivate members to urge their senators to reject the privatization bill. 

These groups take the position that access to water is a right and water should not be a source of windfall profits. They, and national watchdog organizations, such as Food and Water Watch and Public Citizen, offer these arguments against privatization:

• Privatization leads to rate increases because corporations seek to maximize profits for investors.

Investor-owned utilities typically charge 33 percent more for water, according to Food and Water Watch.

After privatization, water rates increase at about three times the rate of inflation, with an average increase of 18 percent every other year.

• Privatization undermines water quality, because the motivation for companies is profit, not public good. Aqua America, headquartered in Pennsylvania, took in $769 million in revenues in 2013 for a $221 million profit. The company’s CEO received $3.2 million in compensation that year.

• Privatization reduces public rights and allows the local government to abdicate control over a public resource.

• Private financing costs more than public financing.

• Privatization leads to job losses as companies minimize costs to increase profits. Food and Water Watch, which opposes any commodification of water, said privatization typically leads to a loss of one in three water jobs.

• Privatization contributes to corruption because companies can restrict public access to information.

• Privatization can contribute to sprawl because companies are motivated to expand infrastructure and extend services.

• Privatization could lead to bulk water exports or changes in water use, including sales to the oil and gas industry for hydraulic fracturing.

• Privatization is difficult to reverse.

The crisis in Flint prompted people across the nation to focus on the quality of the water that comes out of their tap and the management of their utility.

There’s also a global big-picture to consider: The World Bank predicts that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will run short of fresh drinking water. 

Wisconsin will not run short of drinking water by 2025, but who or what will control how much water costs — or where it goes?

FBI ‘assisting’ in probe of abuse at Wisconsin juvenile detention centers | Problems said to derive from Walker’s privatization scheme

Wisconsin’s juvenile prisons are under a broadening investigation over allegations that guards were terrorizing inmates — a situation that some observers blame on the inability to attract quality prison workers since the implementation of Act 10. That law, Gov. Scott Walker’s legislation stripping unions of bargaining rights, has created a shortage of both corrections personnel and teachers in the state.

 Walker now claims that inmates are safe now and personnel and policy changes have been made. The governor also promised that anyone found to have violated the law would be held accountable as a result of the investigation.

Investigators have been looking into a range of alleged crimes at the prisons, including sexual assault and physical abuse of youth, witness and victim intimidation, and evidence tampering.

The investigation, which Walker said initially focused on just a couple of employees at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile prisons north of Wausau, began quietly more than a year ago and became public this week. The FBI said Dec. 10 that it was now “assisting” the state Department of Justice with the inquiry.

Walker said the Department of Justice told his office about two weeks ago that problems at the prisons were more widespread than originally thought. At that point, Walker said he instructed Corrections Secretary Ed Wall “to take aggressive action in dealing with both personnel and policy.”

But at least one person with inside knowledge of the situation has contacted WiG to complain that Wall has purposely allowed the situation to fester in order to support Walker’s ultimate goal of privatizing Wisconsin prisons. Walker has received big donations from the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America.

“There were 88 vacancies when (Wall) accepted his appointment. Today, there are over 500,” wrote Christine Ewerdt, the wife of a correction officer, in an op-ed for WiG.  

She said that Wall has never worked one day within the confines of a correctional facility and purposely implements policies that are destined to fail, to further Walker’s goal of privatization.

“The vacancies within the DOC are staggering enough today to shut down activities in the prisons and create mandatory overtime, all at extra cost to taxpayers,” Ewerdt wrote. “Gov. Walker has long lobbied for privatization, and Wall is the tool he’s using to accomplish this goal.”

Current and former staffers at Lincoln Hills and the affiliated Copper Lake School for Girls have described what they called a culture of indifference at the facility.

But Walker said it was premature to assign blame and he had no plans to ask for Wall’s resignation “right now.”

The corrections department said all people identified as harming juvenile inmates or putting them at risk have been placed on leave pending the completion of investigation. Troy Bauch, a union representative for workers at the juvenile prisons, said about 10 workers connected to the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake facilities are on paid leave, including one for more than a year.

The Corrections Department has not identified other staff members who have been removed.

The department announced Dec. 11 that security staff at the juvenile prisons must now wear body cameras in “all interactions with youth during acts of youth aggression, crisis intervention, and other circumstances.”

The department also said it was expediting the investigation of and disciplinary proceedings against staff members involved in abusing inmates, referring allegations of wrongdoing to the secretary’s office, assigning additional psychological staff to the prisons, adding more security supervisors from other prisons to assist, and increasing the training for guards.

Portions of this story are from a report by The Associated Press.