Weekly privatization report: California’s wealthy hire firefighters, and more.

 

Here’s our weekly analysis of privatization in the news and in communities nationwide. Not a subscriber? Sign up here.

 

1) National: As America grapples with the shocking scale of death and devastation from the California wildfires, the use of private firefighters by the wealthy shines a bright light on the issue of private vs. public interests. Alexis C. Madrigal writes in The Atlantic, “a private firefighting crew reportedly helped save Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s home in Calabasas, TMZ reported this week. (…) The insurance companies AIG and Chubb have publicly talked about their private wildfire teams. AIG has its own ‘Wildfire Protection Unit,’ while Chubb—and up to a dozen other insurers—contract with Wildfire Defense Systems, a Montana company that claims to have made 550 “wildfire responses on behalf of insurers,” including 255 in just the past two years. Right now in California, the company has 53 engines working to protect close to 1,000 homes. The TMZ story feels uniquely 2018—financial capitalism, inequality, KimYe, the fires of Armageddon—and it is, for Americans at least. ‘If the idea of private firefighting strikes us as an oddity nowadays, it should,’ Benjamin Carp, a historian at Brooklyn College CUNY, told me. ‘While other societies throughout history have relied on private firefighting companies to protect the property of the upper classes … for the most part, we … have accepted the idea that fighting fire ought to be a public good.’”

2) National: Democracy Now! reports that some prisoners are being paid only $1 an hour to fight California wildfires. “At least 1,500 of the 9,400 firefighters currently battling fires in California are incarcerated. They make a dollar an hour battling on the front lines but are rarely eligible to get jobs as firefighters after their release. Cal Fire reports five firefighters were injured during the Camp Fire’s first 24 hours, two of them prisoner firefighters who suffered burns.”

3) National: The California wildfires also underline the relationship between privatization and climate change. For more see “How Privatization Contributes to Climate Change” by In the Public Interest’s Executive Director Donald Cohen and Roosevelt University’s Stephanie Farmer. They write, “the unintended consequences of these [‘public-private partnership’] contract clauses create hidden costs for cash-strapped cities, neglect the changing urban lifestyle patterns of millennials and empty-nesters, and more significantly hinder the increasingly urgent need to redesign our cities to address climate change and reduce our carbon footprint.” The surge in deadly wildfires also promises to reinvigorate debate about public vs. market-based strategies to reduce global carbon emissions.

4) National: In the Public Interest’s Jeremy Mohler has some helpful suggestions on how to talk to your family about privatization this Thanksgiving. “You never want to jump right in to explaining that privatization is a key part of the neoliberal project to enrich corporations while attempting to solve nearly all social problems with private markets.” But you might eventually be able to sneak in an observation on how that turkey on the table received a generous one second inspection by the food safety people employed by companies that are policing themselves after the inspection regime was privatized. Also, if you’re looking for a long read over the long weekend, check out Michael Lewis’ fantastic [piece on the dedicated public servants at the USDA (home of the Food Safety and Inspection Service) and what they’re going through as the Trump administration targets its scientists.

5) National: A group of prominent Democratic senators, led by Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), plan to target private immigration detention center operators. They “sent out letters Friday to three private immigration detention center contractors, demanding information on their allegedly poor conditions. The Democrats wrote that it is ‘unclear’ whether CoreCivic, The GEO Group and The Nakamoto Group are each ‘serving as a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars.’ CoreCivic and GEO operate detention facilities, while Nakamoto has a federal contract to inspect conditions in detention facilities. The senators pointed to a September report by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) that painted a stark picture of conditions in several ICE detention facilities.” Warren and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) “raised concerns about CoreCivic and GEO Group’s ‘aggressive  lobbying efforts’ to secure federal contracts and promote policies that increase its profits. They pointed to money the companies spent lobbying Congress, political candidates and President Donald Trump in recent years—donations which they argued ‘paid off’ as the Trump administration’s immigration agenda has ‘filled private facilities with migrant adults and children.’”

6) National: The American Postal Workers Union (APWU) and the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) are sponsoring an ad blitz to oppose any plans by Trump to privatize the postal service. “Details of the plan, announced in a larger governmental reorganization proposal dubbed “Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century,” are expected soon. It’s not certain that privatization will be the administration’s favored solution, but the postal unions want to stop consideration of any solution leading to postal privatization.” See the ad.

7) National: On its recent conference call, GEO Group chairman and CEO George Zoley said his company is ramping up its ICE processing centers and is expecting more federal procurement. “There are two active procurements we are participating in for the Federal Bureau of Prisons totaling close to 12,000 beds. We expect these two procurements to result in contract awards between year-end and the first quarter of next year, which could result in the reactivation of some of our idle facilities. We are also continuing our efforts to expand our GEO Continuum of Care programs which have now been implemented across 18 GEO facilities.”

8) National/Florida: Private prison companies poured record cash into the 2018 elections, Mother Jones reports, citing Center for Responsive Politics data. “That’s more than three times as much as the industry spent in any other midterm year, and about the same as its spending in the 2016 election, when Hillary Clinton openly called for an end to private prisons. (And these figures don’t include any money the industry may have given to dark-money groups that don’t have to reveal their donors.) (…) A large proportion of that money appears to have gone to candidates from the Sunshine State, home of the country’s largest private prison company.”

GEO Group CEO George Zoley told analysts and investors on November 7 that “we have never advocated for or against criminal justice sentencing or immigration enforcement policies. At the federal level, we have worked with both Democratic and Republican-controlled Chamber of Commerce for more than three decades and we look forward to working with the newly elected Congress.”

9) National: CoreCivic paid some detainees at a New Mexico prison as little as 15 cents an hour “as part of ‘volunteer’ work programs, and refused to pay them minimum wages even though they were not convicted of any crimes, a new federal class-action lawsuit alleges.” Their attorney “said the men were not facing criminal charges and are now U.S. residents living in Maryland and Ohio. The men are seeking an unspecified amount in back pay and damages. Attorneys said they believe as many as 1,000 other immigrants held at the Cibola County Correctional Center might have worked for similarly low wages and could be entitled to relief.”

10) National: The New York Times reports on the horrific conditions facing women who work in the federal prison system. “‘It’s a male-dominated world. It’s a chauvinistic world,’ said Joey Rojas, a prison union organizer who helped bring the Coleman lawsuit, adding that men who support female colleagues can be overshadowed by those who do not. (…) On the day Ms. Pugh went to sign the settlement papers, she learned she was being fired. The bureau said she had failed to disclose a piece of her employment history on her job application six years before. It took two-and-a-half years to appeal. She was reinstated with back pay.”

11) National: Absolute Reports forecasts that the Wearable Security Devices market will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 18.76%during the period 2017-2021. GEO Group is listed as a “prominent vendor.” The report costs $3,500.

12) National: Comerica bank has pumped an additional $4.7 million into GEO Group’s stock in the third quarter.

13) California: In a major victory for supporters of traditional, neighborhood public schools, state legislator Tony Thurmond has defeated charter schools supporter Marshall Tuck in the election for state school superintendent. “The election of Thurmond was a victory for forces in California who want to reform the scandal-ridden charter school sector and a blow to the charter school lobby and wealthy philanthropists, some of them out of state, who had poured millions into Tuck’s campaign. Both men are Democrats. Thurmond had established an insurmountable lead more than a week after the actual election, with 50.8 percent of the vote to 49.2 percent for Tuck, who lost his second consecutive bid for the job.”

14) California: Accusations of bias and free speech suppression have been levelled at a La Quinta public library staffed and operated by the private, for-profit company Library Systems and Services Inc. (LSSI). “A well known Mexican-American author is coming forward with discrimination allegations against employees at the La Quinta Library. This comes a month after a Cesar Chavez elementary teacher accused library staff of discriminating against a Hispanic Heritage Month performance.”

A letter by officials said “the City of La Quinta thanks Telemundo for making City Staff aware of claims by author Victor Villaseñor that, during an event in January 2016 at the Riverside County Branch Library in La Quinta, he was instructed to put away a Mexican flag, had his presentation interrupted, and was asked to leave.  As has been reported in connection with an incident that occurred at the County Branch Library during the Hispanic Heritage Celebration in September 2018, the City of La Quinta contracts with Riverside County, and Riverside County in turn subcontracts with Library Systems & Services for staffing and operations at the County Branch Library.”

“As has also been reported in connection with the more recent incident, the City of La Quinta takes allegations like this very seriously. The City has forwarded the information received by Telemundo concerning Mr. Villaseñor’s claims to Riverside County Counsel’s Office so that, if determined appropriate by County Counsel or the independent investigator, the author’s claims may be included in the independent investigation relating to the September 2018 incident.  However, in the event that the independent investigator chooses not to investigate Mr. Villaseñor’s claims, the City will independently investigate the claims.” Villaseñor said he decided to speak up after seeing CBS Local KESQ reports on what happened to CVUSD students.

15) Florida: A charter school operator gets 20 years for fraud. “[Marcus May’s] company, Newpoint Education Partners, operated charter schools in Escambia, Bay, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Prosecutors say May misappropriated millions in public money to buy furniture, computers and other materials at inflated prices from fraudulent companies run by his close associates. A co-defendant, Steven Kunkemoeller, has been sentenced to 4½ years for racketeering and organized fraud.”

16) Massachusetts: Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Tunku Varadarajan, a research fellow at the right wing Hoover Institution, discusses the clash over charter school expansion in New Bedford, portraying it as a battle between an intrepid charter entrepreneur and a recalcitrant mayor. “‘I intend to oppose it,’ the mayor said recently, ‘because I don’t believe that this is the right thing for the city.’ He added, without supporting evidence, that Alma del Mar ‘has demonstrated itself not to be a constructive partner with the school district.’ A recent article in CommonWealth magazine by supporters of the mayor and the teachers union criticized Alma del Mar for getting political support from ‘the think-tank crowd’—a reference to the Boston-based free-market Pioneer Institute, which has promoted the school. At the root of the resistance, supporters believe, is a panic in the mayor’s office about relinquishing control over education in the city. Alma del Mar reports directly to the state, not to the city’s elected school committee. There are competing petitions online—one for and one against the school’s expansion.” [Sub required]

But the supporting evidence is right in the CommonWealth article he mentions, along with a note about the charter industry’s PR efforts. “Why siphon from the most successful of New Bedford’s schools, which outperform charters with a more challenging student population, just to increase charter seats? With a concerted and well-funded public relations strategy unmatched by cash-strapped district schools, it seems the only advantage charters have over traditional public schools is in the marketing department. It’s a credit to the public relations efforts of charters that the success of the New Bedford district public schools relative to its charters comes as a surprise.”

17) New York: On tonight’s edition of WBAI’s Building Bridges, Mimi Rosenberg, and Ken Nash interview Maritza Silva-Farrell, the executive director of ALIGN (Alliance for a Greater New York) and Greg LeRoy, the executive director for Good Jobs First. Up for discussion: “Community organizations representing more than 200,000 members across New York City and State are concerned that NY is rolling out the red carpet for Jeff Bezos’ Amazon. Why are the Mayor and Governor handing the keys to the city to Amazon, whose market value surpassed Microsoft’s in February 2018, making Amazon the world’s third most valuable company?  Bezos holds 78.9 million shares of Amazon stock. He is now the richest man of all time, with an estimated net worth of $105 billion dollars.” Livestreaming at 7pm eastern time tonight and in the WBAI archives afterwards.

18) New York: Pocono Mountain School District held a public meeting last week to discuss privatizing their school bus system. “Nearly 200 district employees are worried they will lose their jobs. ‘It’s not only our bus drivers but its our whole transportation department. Its our mechanics, it’s our monitors, our dispatchers, our secretaries. It affects everybody in our department,’ Dawn Cello, President of Pocono Mountain ESP. ‘The people who are already here who are doing it for us, they know the area, they know our children,’ said Carissa Melillo, Pocono Township resident who has children in the district.” Sixth grader Maggie Lowther said, “we trust our bus drivers. Now, we’re not going to know who’s driving our buses. We may have temporary bus drivers, and it makes me really mad. (…) And she isn’t the only one. Hundreds packed into the auditorium, some wearing yellow shirts to show their opposition to the idea of hiring new drivers. ‘We absolutely love our bus driver. I put the kids on the bus every morning. I never have to worry about their safety, so it was a no brainer to do something special such as the shirts,’ said Kathy Popa, a first grade teacher at Swiftwater Elementary.”

19) North Carolina: A charter school principal has been accused of statutory rape of a 12-year-old student. The principal is not yet in custody. “Dillard Academy is a Charter School not affiliated with the Wayne County Public School System.”

20) Pennsylvania: A proposal to outsource the jobs of 87 Carlisle school district classroom, library and personal care assistants to Knoxville-based Education Staffing Solutions is met by public outrage. “Lisa Hartzell said she feels as though she’s being treated like crap by a proposal to outsource the remaining instructional aides employed by the Carlisle Area School District. ‘I have put a lot into it,’ she told school board members last week during a meeting. ‘I have given 20 years. I have 184 and a half sick days because I don’t feel right taking off. If you go to this other thing, my health insurance is going to go up,’ she added. ‘I will lose $2 an hour pay. I already work two jobs. I don’t like being treated like crap … I can’t help the way I feel.’ Parents, teachers and support staff filled to capacity the large group instruction room at Carlisle High School to give board members an earful on how the public regards a recommended cost-cutting measure.”

21) Pennsylvania: The Delco Coalition for Prison Reform is lambasting Delaware County officials for conducting a shabby review and public accountability process as it prepares to decide whether its prison facilities should be public or private. They are now operated by the GEO Group. DelcoCPR says “the Phoenix Report on private vs. County-run prison management has been delayed for months. The Prison Board will now have to make a decision on contract renewal before results are in. What’s more, they have agreed to a joint public hearing with County Council, but no meeting has been scheduled! Delco CPR believes ‘no action should be taken until the public is heard.’ ‘Delco CPR believes the prison board is asking the wrong questions with the Phoenix report,’ they said. ‘Instead of merely looking at economic costs of running the facility, they should also be looking at human costs and long-term effects of recidivism for individuals and communities. Cost isn’t everything and cheaper does not always mean better.’ ‘Research has shown that private prisons often cut corners on areas like staffing and medical treatment,’ they continued. ‘Without comparing actual programmatic offerings, recidivism rates, staffing practices and more, it is very difficult to know what we are getting for a specific amount of money.’”

The Daily Times revealed on Saturday that the report is not expected to come out until March—three months after the expiration of the county’s $50 million contract with the GEO Group. “Delaware County Council has a decision to make on the future of the county prison—and they don’t have much more time to make it. The current contract with the private firm that has been operating the facility expires at the end of the year.” Part of the delay is because “GEO has not provided information as they cited the ongoing procurement process.” The prison board “ paid Phoenix Management $100,000 for a private versus public analysis. Some, including members of the Delaware County Coalition for Prison Reform, want the prison to revert to public control.”

22) Pennsylvania: Bensalem Township School District administrators have expressed concerns about renewing a charter school that is located in the Bucks County township. “After extensive review of the recharter application, site visits and other research, Bensalem School District administrators pointed out several concerns at the recent hearing. Among them were: no evidence that School Lane is in full compliance with Pennsylvania Core Standards; one special education teacher didn’t have the appropriate certification for most of the 2016-17 school year; some statement of financial interest forms [were] filled out incorrectly in 2015 and 2016; [and] the curriculum needs to be updated to be in full compliance with state standards.”

23) Utah: Reporting for KUTV, Chris Jones and Nadia Pflaum find that the state charter school board is not monitoring third party charter school contractors. “Lambert said that the state board can’t just conduct audits of a school without cause—bad testing performance, for instance, or a floundering financial situation. And even if APA had sent up any such ‘red flags,’ the charter school board has no authority to audit a third party contractor who does business with the school.”

24) Wisconsin: Henry Graber of Slate offers one explanation for why Scott Walker lost the race for governor—his record on education. “Ironically, Walker’s other big legacy in Wisconsin may be the Foxconn plant, for which the state is dedicating the largest subsidy for a foreign company in U.S. history. Even if the deal went perfectly as planned, it would still amount to a gigantic state investment to create a bunch of good middle-class jobs. Which, if you think about it, is kind of what Wisconsin once had in its public-sector unions.”

25) International/New York: With the collapse of Carillion still making headlines, is another giant British outsourcing company about to go belly up?“Interserve has operations in more than 40 countries providing construction, equipment, facilities management and ‘citizen services’ in sectors ranging from aviation to retail, oil and gas, the nuclear industry and leisure services. It lists local government as one of its major sectors, claiming: ‘We are an intelligent and strategic partner with deep experience of supporting local government. We work closely with councils to tackle problems, transform communities and change lives.’ Earlier this year York City Council terminated a £9m contract with Interserve amid spiraling costs to refurbish its historic Guildhall.”

26) International: As debate over terms for Britain leaving the European Union rages and threatens to bring down the government, writer and left activist Richard Seymour looks at how the thorny issue of EU-mandated privatization would complicate the opposition Labour Party’s commitment to renationalization of major British sectors such as rail, the post office, water, etc. “Now, what if the ECJ ruled against a Corbyn government? What if it instructed Corbyn to immediately open up publicly owned carriage provision to competition from private providers, say to Virgin or Southern Rail? Could Corbyn simply refuse to comply?”

Legislative Issues

1) National: Prison and sentencing reform is a top agenda item in the lame duck session of Congress, with all eyes turned to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who must give floor time in the Senate to a bipartisan bill backed by the White House for it to succeed. Right wing Senator Tom Cotton is opposing the bill, and McConnell is making noises about a busy schedule. “Durbin, asked what it would take to get the bill through the Senate, said the decision was up to McConnell, who controls the Senate floor. He also warned that if the issue is kicked to next year House Democrats, who will be in the majority, could try to renegotiate the legislation. Grassley separately argued that McConnell owes him after he’s helped shepherd two Supreme Court justices and dozens of appellate court nominees in his role as Judiciary Committee chairman. ‘We’ve made history and we’ve got two good people on the Supreme Court and I would like reciprocity from the leader on what I’ve done in our unified effort to get judges,’ Grassley said.”