In an unbelievable act of hubris, the for-profit prison company, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), recently wrote to 48 state governments with an offer they must refuse. CCA wants to take over the public prison systems in exchange for a 20-year contract PLUS a guarantee that the prisons be at least 90% full. In the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, a nation desperately in need of reform in the criminal justice system, this corporation wants it written into law that they will have a pipeline of bodies to fill their cells and their pockets for at least two decades. Unfortunately, we have too many states where the Republican legislators making the decisions are only too eager to sell off public resources to private industry. When for-profit prison corporations get involved directly in funding politicians, they donate to Republicans 80% of the time.
Despite the fact that the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, we hold approximately 25% of its prisoners. Between 1970 and 2005, particularly with the advent of the War on Drugs, the population of people incarcerated in the U.S. has grown by 700%, despite decreases in crime. Instead of moving toward a reduction in the number of incarcerated individuals, we have companies like CCA and the GEO Group, Inc. lobbying to guarantee that the criminal justice system stays just as it is for at least the next 20 years. In fact, according to the ACLU, CCA actually identified reforms to drug enforcement or sentencing laws as a potential threat to their business in their 2010 annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
For-profit corporations have already significantly infiltrated the criminal justice system with a stunning 1600% increase in the number of prisoners housed in private prisons since 1990. The result is the top two private prison corporations making almost $3 billion a year of taxpayer dollars as profit. These corporations came on the scene in the 1980s with promises of lower costs to taxpayers. The evidence on whether there is actual cost savings is mixed, but if there is any savings it is done through providing substandard services and reducing wages, resulting in the loss of middle class jobs. Most recently, an in-depth report by American Friends Service Committee concluded that private jails/prisons were actually costing the state of Arizona more than public facilities while also having safety and accountability issues. Furthermore, the for-profit industry steers states away from truly cost-saving efforts such as reducing overall incarceration rates. Instead of actions like reforming drug laws, utilizing probation or parole, and instituting sentencing reductions, the private prison industry lobbies to keep these potential cost saving strategies off the table.
Until 2010, CCA was a member of the American Legislative Executive Committee (ALEC), the secretive, corporate-run group busily attempting to manipulate laws across the country, and through this organization has written draft legislation for lawmakers in numerous states, but particularly in Arizona. In this way, the for-profit incarceration company, despite its protests to the contrary, had a behind-the-scenes hand in writing the SB 1070, “Papers Please,” immigration law. The result is a steady stream of detainees for CCA which holds the contract for immigrant detention centers. But, outside of Arizona, ALEC has also been busy nationwide writing legislation to ensure harsher sentencing across the board while reducing opportunities for probation and parole even for low-risk prisoners. This is the perverse incentive built into the very nature of private prisons to maximize the number of people who will become incarcerated and make sure they stay that way.
Scandals plague the for-profit industry. One that received a great deal of attention was the famous “Cash for Kids” case where Judge Mark Ciavarella sentenced juveniles to time in for-profit detention centers in exchange for kickbacks and Judge Michael Conahan was convicted for racketeering in connection to the case. But there is also the class action suit in Mississippi won by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU against the state’s use of privately run prisons after the GEO Group, Inc.’s prison was found to be abusing juveniles, especially by placing them in extended solitary confinement. Lawsuits have also been filed on behalf of prisoners who have received inadequate medical and mental health services from private companies contracted to provide prisoners with care while they are in custody. The ACLU has described other prison conditions as “atrocious” detailing how high staff turnover results in inexperienced staff who are unable to prevent violence behind bars or prevent prisoner escapes in otherwise preventable circumstances. In fact, studies have found that prisoners in private prisons were substantially more likely to be assaulted than those in public prisons.
Another issue is that removing individuals from their families has repercussions for everyone involved, and these effects have been felt particularly harshly in minority communities. For example, black women are incarcerated at a rate seven times greater than white women and 75% of them are mothers. At least one third of these women are locked up for non-violent, drug-related offenses. Their absence has a significant, devastating impact on their children. A growing number of Americans are also demanding that the criminal justice system reform drug laws that criminalize addiction and turn a public health issue into a matter of punishment.
Overall, Americans have to ask themselves if they can afford, morally or financially, to have yet another area of the public sphere dominated by the profit motive. Despite the fact that imprisonment costs taxpayers tremendous amounts of money, the for-profit industry opposes community-based alternatives that cost far less. The financial aspects of using imprisonment over other options are not the only considerations. Private prisons obviously have less motivation to insure that recidivism rates are reduced, because they want to maintain high numbers in their prison populations. They have little reason to guarantee rehabilitation is taking place, and even less reason to prevent crime from occurring. They are subject to less oversight and regulation, and employ undertrained and underpaid staff, paving the way for increased abuse of prisoners.
There is still time for these 48 states to reject CCA’s audacious offer to take over their prison systems. Unfortunately, with infusions of cash on behalf of the private prison industry, we can’t necessarily trust our states’ lawmakers to do the right thing. Our best chance to head off more encroachment by corporations will have to be to apply intense counter-pressure to our representatives.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.