Locked Up & Shipped Away. Interstate Prisoner Transfers and the Private Prison Industry.
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Locked Up & Shipped Away: Prison Transfers & the Ones Who Profit

For those of us with family members on the other side of the bars, prison visits aren’t always easy to make. This is especially true when inmates are shipped off to out-of-state prisons.

Stressed relationships, the need for those extra hours of pay, the bureaucracy of the prison itself, and raising a family are all factors that can get in the way.

But for many of us, the greatest obstacle to seeing our loved ones is geography. Some studies have even posited that 63.3% of inmates are over 100 miles from the places they call home.

Others have stated that prisoners in out-of-state private facilities are held approximately 450 miles to nearly 3,000 miles from their home states. This problem is only exacerbated by another reality of prison life: prison transfers.

Locked Up & Shipped Away. Interstate Prisoner Transfers and the Private Prison Industry.
Locked Up & Shipped Away. Interstate Prisoner Transfers and the Private Prison Industry. Image Source: Grassroots Leadership

Why Transfer Inmates from One Prison to the Next?

In prisons, an inmate may be transferred for a variety of reasons:

  • Their security category has changed
  • Inmates are causing disruption
  • The individuals are marked as especially dangerous, were they to escape
  • They are being bullied and require transfer for their own safety
  • Overcrowding due to mass incarceration

Inmate protection is often cited as the main reason for the transfer of male inmates in 12 Departments of Corrections. In nine DOCs, “other” (usually family-related) was given as the reason for a transfer.

In the case of female inmates, no conclusive patterns have been shown. The largest number of inmates was transferred as a response to crowding (2,610 people). Security issues were the cause of the next largest volume of transfers.

While some of these reasons seem to have a prisoner’s best interests in mind, you’ll notice that nowhere on this list are the desires of the prisoner represented.

Theoretically, the system attempts to keep prisoners near their families. But there are no laws to that effect. Regardless of the circumstances, an inmate’s transfer is completely outside of their control.

Transfer of Vermont Inmates to an Unknown Mississippi Prison

Obstacles for Applying for Prison Transfers

There is technically a process by which an inmate can seek a transfer, but for the most part, the decision of whether an inmate is transferred is left up to governmental bureaucracy.

In other words, the decision of whether an inmate will be able to get the transfer they need is left up to individuals far removed from the situation.

While inmates can make requests, that process can take weeks or sometimes months to complete, and the success-rate of such requests are daunting. But for even those who do find success, several signatures are needed before a transfer can be approved.

That means that in some cases, inmates and their families are prohibited from contact for several months before they even get a yes or no. That’s not even including the time required for the bureaucracy to manifest as action.

And worth considering is that in one-third of all prison systems, inmates must be transferred back to the sending state for their releases.

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Using Prison Transfers to Turn a Profit

Today there are more than 10,500 state inmates incarcerated in private for-profit prisons outside of their home states, and that figure is only likely to grow. Beyond maintaining order, prison systems have a vested interest not only in continued mass incarceration, but also in the transfer of prisoners.

For-profit prisons—and even state prisons—make money off their inmates. Whether from public funds, the unreasonable costs of commissary items and means of communication, or the “modern-day slavery” that is the labor force.

For-profit private prisons are also paid by the government per diem. In either case, the more people behind bars, the better the business. Some for-profit prisons even have “lockup quotas” in many contracts. This is a practice that disincentivizes reducing prison populations and can contractually bind governments to pay for unused private prison beds.

And if there aren’t enough people being incarcerated, then the next best thing is to transfer them. The result is something eerily similar to a slave trade, especially considering that in some states, prisoners are paid $0 an hour for their work.

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As always, these issues are undeniably bound together, which of course makes them much more complicated to tackle. However, that does not mean that the situation is irreversible. Organizations like Grassroots Leadership are urging lawmakers to:

  1. Prioritize strategies to reduce prison populations in order to bring home prisoners currently housed in out-of-state facilities
  2. Pass legislation that bans the exportation of incarcerated people from their home state

Ultimately, what they and many other organizations like them are calling for is a form of regulation. They want laws that can help protect the rights of inmates and their families. And for those of us on the other side of the bars, we can help make those demands heard.

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N. L. Sweeney
N. L. Sweeney is an English Creative Writing graduate from Western Washington University. His work has been published by Flash Fiction Magazine, Niteblade, Defenestration Magazine, Jeopardy Magazine and Inroads: Writers in the Community. He currently writes editorials and feature news pieces for Prison Rideshare Network. When Sweeney's not writing, he busies himself with petting furry animals, learning Chinese and making friends in local tea shops.