Let’s kick off with a few fun facts;
- The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.
- It is estimated that 1 in 9 state government employees works in corrections.
- Violent crime was not responsible for the quadrupling of the incarcerated population in the United States from 1980 to 2003. Violent crime rates had been relatively constant or declining over those decades. The prison population was increased primarily by public policy changes causing more prison sentences and lengthening time served, e.g. through mandatory minimum sentencing, “three strikes” laws, and reductions in the availability of parole or early release.
Now comes a rather thorough essay on one particular aspect of the US Prison System, the privatization of incarceration, from Rania Khalek at Alternet. As usual the whole piece is worth a visit;
While the implications of an industry that locks human beings in cages for profit is an old story, there is an important part of the history of private prisons that often goes untold.
Just a decade ago, private prisons were a dying industry awash in corruption and mired in lawsuits, particularly Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest private prison operator. Today, these companies are booming once again, yet the lawsuits and scandals continue to pile up. Meanwhile, more and more evidence shows that compared to publicly run prisons, private jails are filthier, more violent, less accountable, and contrary to what privatization advocates peddle as truth, do not save money. In fact, more recent findings suggest that private prisons could be more costly.
In a recently published report, “Banking on Bondage: Mass Incarceration and Private Prisons,” the American Civil Liberties Union examines the history of prison privatization and finds that private prison companies owe their continued and prosperous existence to skyrocketing immigration detention post September 11 as well as the firm hold they have gained over elected and appointed officials. ….
…. According to the ACLU report, From 1970 to 2005, the number of people locked up in the US shot up by 700 percent. Meanwhile, between 1990 and 2009 the number of prisoners behind private prison bars exploded from 7,000 to 129,000 inmates, a growth rate of 1600 percent. But the private prison boom of the ‘90s did not last. ….
….Immigration Detention Saves the Day
In 1999, independent auditors were skeptical about whether CCA could stay afloat because beds were empty and the company experienced a $72 million net loss in revenue. By 2000, an article in BusinessWeek declared “the industry is in a rut, and its prospects have been severely trimmed. Overbuilding and ill-fated financial schemes have hammered stock prices. States, once eager to outsource their inmates, are backing out of private prison contracts. News of escapes and violence at private prisons adds to a climate of distrust.” The article concludes that “the industry’s heyday may already be history.” ….
According to the ACLU report, heightened immigration enforcement following the 2001 terrorist attacks were largely responsible for resurrecting the private prison boom, as was predicted by Steve Logan, CEO of Cornell Corrections which has since been acquired by the GEO Group, the 2nd largest private prison operator. On a conference call with investors just two months after 9/11 Logan said:
I think it’s clear that with the events of Sept. 11, there’s a heightened focus on detention, both on the borders and within the U.S. [and] more people get caught. So that’s a positive for our business. The federal business is the best business for us.
He was right. The number of immigrants detained annually has nearly doubled, to 390,000 since immigration enforcement was transferred to the newly formed Department of Homeland Security in 2003, creating a huge market for private prison operators, who house almost 50 percent of all federally detained immigrants compared with just 6 percent of state prisoners and 16 percent of federal prisoners.
Since 2001, CCA revenues have increased 88 percent, earning over $1 billion annually for the last eight years in a row. Today, CCA receives 40 percent of its business from the federal government, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. GEO Group revenues shot up as well, from $517 million in 2002 to $1.3 billion in 2010, a 121 percent increase.
Given the private prison industry’s heavy reliance on immigration detention, it comes as no surprise that Arizona’s draconian immigration law SB 1070 was shaped with the assistance of private prison leaders and lobbyists. The law authorizes Arizona police to arrest and detain individuals they suspect are undocumented if they fail to provide paperwork proving their legal residence, essentially legalizing racial profiling.
….Gaming the System
Although these companies are increasingly depended on immigration detention, they have not given up on the criminal justice market. For private prisons whose profits are dependent on a constant and growing pool of prisoners, that means supporting policies that maintain and even increase the incarceration rate. For inmates, that translates to longer sentences, unsanitary conditions, and as Shapiro documents in the ACLU report, brutal violence, corruption, and abuse with little to no oversight.
“Leniency and sentencing changes actually pose a threat to business models of these companies. The more crime there is the more business private prison companies get, and the more strict sentencing laws there are the more taxpayer money is poured into private prison companies incarcerating individuals for nonviolent offenses,” says Shapiro.
The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. ….
….In other words, a more humane criminal justice and immigration detention system threatens the very existence of these companies, and according to the ACLU report, they have flooded government at the state and federal level with cash and armies of lobbyists to keep the laws as harsh and cruel as ever. That explains why CCA spent over $18 million on federal lobbying between 1999 and 2009 and has spent $970,000 on federal lobbying in 2010 alone. As for state government influence-peddling, the ACLU report cites a study by the National Institute on Money in State Politics which found that from 2003 to 2011 CCA hired 199 lobbyists in 32 states while GEO Group hired 72 lobbyists in 17 states.
Khalek’s article is a lot longer that the highlights I give here, but it’s clear that what we have here is a number of policy changes coming together to create an unsettling dynamic;
As a matter of simple supply and demand, if incarceration as a result of judicial action is profitable, then there is immediately economic pressure to conjure up more prisoners. If, in turn, the laws are now such that private interests with a commercial axe to grind are permitted to sluice as much cash as they wish into the political system to rally support for increasingly draconian sentencing, then that’s what we’re likely to get, regardless of any evidence, or lack of it, to suggest that it makes sense in any larger context. Thus;
The Justice Policy Institute (JPI) released a comprehensive report in June called “Gaming the System,” that comprehensively lays out the tactics private prison companies exercise to push for tougher sentencing policies that add to the private prison population. While their strategy is built largely around campaign contributions and lobbying, they also cultivate and maintain special relationships with current and former elected and appointed officials, which can lead to disastrous consequences.
I can think of no rational calculus by which a Nation with a proud heritage of the idea of “freedom” could adopt a strategy like this and not expect those freedoms to be eroded. The greater the private capital investment in building prisons, the greater is the pressure to fill them, and if those private interests are permitted virtually unrestricted political funding opportunities to influence legislative (and thus judicial) policy, the greater will be the pressure for more draconian sentencing, and worse, more laws calling for mandatory incarceration regardless of severity.
By what possible reasoning could we expect anything less?