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Q&A: Former NAACP head calls for-profit prisons 'morally corrupt'

April 12, 2017

Civil rights leader Benjamin Jealous slated as keynote speaker at ASU Law conference 'The Corporatization of Criminal Justice'

Human rights advocates and other critics of the private prison industry say profit-driven corporations have influenced the length and severity of sentences, disproportionately harming communities of color and contributing to social inequality and oppression.

Under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department announced plans to end relationships with private prisons. But under the Trump administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed the policy, which the president campaigned on, saying private prisons work better than federally run detention centers.

The reversal angered the activist community and put the issue back in the spotlight. To that end, a national conference, “The Corporatization of Criminal Justice,” is being hosted Friday at the Beus Center for Law and Society on Arizona State University's Downtown Phoenix campus, featuring panel presentations, national figures, scholars, attorneys and advocates discussing the role of private prisons in mass incarceration and detention. 

Former head of the NAACP Benjamin Jealous has been slated as the keynote speaker.

Jealous, who now helps steer minorities into tech jobs, spoke to ASU Now, saying the for-profit prison system is “morally corrupt” and needs to be reformed.  

Question: I tried locating a scholar or panel member in support of the privatization of mass incarceration but couldn’t find any takers. Why do you think that is?

Answer: There’s a deep strain of skepticism that runs through American people on this issue. Generally speaking, people who have freedom tend to be leery about others profiting off of taking that freedom away from their neighbors. That skepticism has been affirmed again and again.

The most glaring example are the two judgesJealous is referring to the 2008 “kids for cash” scandal where Pennsylvania judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan were convicted of accepting kickbacks from a builder of two private, for-profit youth centers for the detention of juveniles in return for harsher sentences and increasing the number of residents there. in Pennsylvania who took bribes to send juveniles, who ordinarily would have not been incarcerated, to private juvenile prisons in order to help the company keep their bed count up. So there’s the potential for that type of corruption that makes most Americans leery under this system — profit-making for incarceration.

Q: When did the idea of for-profit prisons start, and how did it gain traction?

A: It became very popular in the last 20 years as a way to address overcrowding of prisons. This issue became urgent for me when I was president of the NAACP, and we were fighting to shrink prison systems across the South.

On the one hand, we enjoyed great bipartisan support, and on the other hand, one of our biggest obstacles was not the prison guards’ union, but actually private prison companies.

These companies have the audacity to do what no other business had ever done — they had actually required the state to guarantee them a 90 percent-plus bed count for 20 years or more. An issue like that may not be legally corrupt, but it’s certainly morally corrupt, and it contributes to the bankruptcy of our state.

Headshot of

Benjamin Jealous

Q: States wanted to get out of the prison business because it was costly, but it sounds like the for-profit system is costly, too?

A: Private prisons initially presented themselves as a financial solution as mass incarceration rates were going up. Now that states are focused on reducing incarceration, they not only have become a political obstacle but a financial one, as well. The sad irony is that their staffs tend to be less well-paid, less well-trained, and therefore more likely to commit abuse. You end up with a very powerful lobby protecting an inferior corner of the industry.

Q: Critics of the private prison system also claim it unfairly impacts people of color and creates social inequities and oppression.

A: If you talk to lawyers, they will focus on disproportionality, which is a real problem. If you look at this problem domestically, black and brown people are much more likely to be incarcerated than their white neighbors. However, it’s equally important to look at this internationally — we do not just have the most incarcerated black and brown people on the planet, but we also have the most incarcerated white people on the planet. Both populations are massively overrepresented.

We have 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated in our prisons, and a white male in America is just as likely to be incarcerated as a black male. The pain and the devastation is significant across racial groups when it comes to mass incarceration.

The reality is that there are perverse incentives for private prisons to underserve inmates, and that’s a major problem.

Q: The undercurrent seems to be that everybody is calling for reform, but no one’s actually doing anything about it because it’s a massive challenge that will take decades to sort out.

A: The good news is that we’ve been successful in creative bipartisan consensus on reform in a wide range of states. We’ve done it at the ballot box in California, and we’ve done it with legislators in Georgia, Texas, South Carolina and New York, for example. There’s a lot to be optimistic when handling mass incarceration. President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are not just out of step with the American people, they’re out of step with their own people.

Q: What do you hope this conference can achieve given that everybody will have the same point of view and essentially you’ll be “preaching to the choir”?

A: With David and Goliath, all David had to do was survive. The purpose of this conference is to inspire a wide range of activists and lawyers to keep on playing the role of David in this struggle.

The public is welcome to attend the conference. For information on registering, visit

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Morrison-Cronkite News poll shows 2 in 5 know someone with painkiller addiction

ASU-released poll shows 1 in 7 adults know someone who overdosed on pain pills.
April 12, 2017

Major survey released by ASU shows sweep of opioid abuse and addiction epidemic

A major poll released by Arizona State University on Wednesday shows 2 in 5 adults in Arizona know someone who has been addicted to prescription painkillers, a finding that shows the sweep of the opioid abuse and addiction epidemic.

The Morrison-Cronkite News Poll, “Arizonans’ Opinions on Opioids and Addiction,” also showed 1 in 7 Arizona adults know someone who has died from an opiate pill overdose.

“Our polls continue to add key insight and data on important and complex issues facing the state and nation including in this case, opioid availability, abuse and addiction,” said Thom Reilly, director of Morrison Institute for Public Policy. “The findings show how widespread this epidemic manifests itself across a variety and multiple demographics. Poll results should help policymakers, medical professionals, community groups and the public better address this serious problem through improved awareness, policies and practices.”

The survey — a joint project between ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy and Cronkite News, the news division of Arizona PBS — builds off the Cronkite News documentary “Hooked Rx: From Prescription to Addiction,” Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication Dean Christopher Callahan said.

“The Morrison-Cronkite News Poll is part of our continued commitment to reporting on this critical health issue that impacts so many people,” Callahan said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 78 people die every day from opioid-related overdoses in the U.S.

The Cronkite School’s 30-minute, commercial-free documentary on prescription opioid abuse was produced by more than 100 students under the guidance of 15 faculty members. It reached more than 1 million Arizonans in January.

Nearly 60 percent of Arizonans said they believe opioid painkillers are “very easy” or “somewhat easy” to get, despite continual efforts by the state and federal governments to further regulate and restrict the drug’s availability. The poll showed nearly 3 in 5 Arizona adults believe “prescription painkiller abuse makes a person more likely to use heroin or other illegal drugs.”

The poll showed the use of prescription pain relievers among Arizonans with ongoing pain increases with age (18–35 years old: 23 percent; 36–64: 38 percent; 65–plus: 41 percent). Overall, 36 percent of Arizonans in chronic pain use prescription pain relievers.

Throughout the poll report, comparisons were made to the national findings from the Henry I. Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll from November 2015. The Morrison-Cronkite News Poll’s findings were similar to the national Kaiser Family Foundation Poll.

The Morrison-Cronkite News Poll, conducted March 11–18, interviewed 800 randomly selected Arizona adults. The sample was quota-selected from 18 strata based on age, gender and race to match the demographic characteristics of Arizona based on the latest Census data. The sampling frame included both landline and cellular telephones, and interviews were conducted in Spanish as needed. The survey’s margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

The complete Morrison-Cronkite News Poll and coverage from Cronkite News can be found at

In the past two years, Cronkite News has been committed to providing in-depth and sustained coverage of Arizona’s opioid epidemic.

In addition to the “Hooked Rx” documentary, Cronkite News has produced numerous stories on the opioid epidemic. In 2015, students produced “Hooked: Tracking Heroin’s Hold on Arizona,” which reached more than 1 million Arizonans and won numerous prestigious journalism awards, including the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and Arizona’s top Emmy Award. Both Hooked documentaries were produced in partnership with the Arizona Broadcasters Association.