Espinal Moves to Ban Private Prisons

By David Brand

Assembly Member Ari Espinal introduced a slate of bills designed to solidify hate crime laws and erode privatization in the criminal justice system this week.

One bill, known as the Michael Sandy Act, would prevent defendants charged with a hate crime from arguing that they themselves are members of the same protected class as the victim.

The bill is named for Michael Sandy, an black gay man who was killed in 2006 by four white men who attempted to rob him. One of the defendants said he was also gay and thus immune to charges of committing a hate crime against another gay man.

The Private Prison Elimination Act would prohibit the state from leasing or granting state-owned property to be used for the operation of private correctional facilities.

“We must take preventive measures in New York State to make sure that these greedy and opportunistic companies stay out of New York,” Espinal said. “Mass incarceration is a national crisis, and we must take action to eliminate practices and companies that benefit from it.”

New York City’s lone private detention facility is located in Jamaica. The Queens Detention Facility, located among warehouses at 182-22 150th Avenue, is operated by the private-prison behemoth GEO Group and is used to house detainees by the U.S. Marshals Service.  GEO Group is the second-largest private prison company in the world.

In 2011, then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio condemned the corporation running the private jail.

“We only know one thing, that GEO Group has a horrible track record. So much so that other governments have told them they could not operate in their nation,” de Blasio said, according to City Limits.

Though private prisons are banned by state law, several private prisons used by the federal government exist throughout New York State. Reports of limited oversight, unqualified staff and abusive, inhuman conditions — often related to cost-cutting measures — plague the private prison industry.

It remains unclear whether the Queens Detention Facility, as a jail and not a prison, would be affected by the Private Prison Elimination Act. As of press time, Espinal’s office did not respond to respond to a request for clarification.

Espinal’s third bill would end the use of private probation in New York. A February report by Human Rights Watch concluded that the cost of private probation supervision disproportionately hurts the poor and criminalizes the inability to pay probation fees and court costs.

When an individual cannot afford their probation payments, they may face arrest, extended probation or even prison.

“Lack of accountability in offender-funded private probation systems creates many opportunities for abuse,” said Komala Ramachandra, senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “While probation fees and court costs may only be a slight inconvenience for a person who can afford those costs, they can be ruinous for a person living in poverty.”

Espinal said her bills would create a more equitable criminal justice system for all New Yorkers.

“With these two bills, we are one step closer to a criminal justice system predicated not on predatory profit motives, but the actual wellbeing of New Yorkers and their communities,” Espinal said. “Every New Yorker, incarcerated or not, is entitled to basic human dignity. Those who have served their time deserve a fair shot at a second chance, without being preyed upon by greedy corporations.”

Assembly Member Ari Espinal introduced three new bill designed to solidify hate crime laws and end private prisons and probation. // Photo courtesy of Ari Espinal