land of the free

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 CCA lays out the risks to their business model in their 2010 Annual Report to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC):

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?


23 Responses to land of the free

  1. Di-Ohso says:

    Didn’t I read sometime ago, that a judge was charged with taking kickbacks for sending juveniles to a privately owned detention centre?

  2. TheShadowKnows says:

    yes, I recall that kickback scam also.
    Not much chance of any sane changes in the War on Drugs either, so long as locking people up is a good financial investment.
    Coming soon; The War on Bad Haircuts.

  3. Cochise says:


  4. Cochise says:

    Well that seems to work…Seems to me conditions are just about perfect for a global wave of civil unrest and with today’s technology we should all have front row seats…hopefully the seat cushions will double as flotation devises …for my money this beats the hell out of the holidays for theater value….so on with the show….there will be no word from the sponsors as there too numerous to mention.

  5. ninemilerancher says:

    My hometown has an empty, privately-funded prison. Finding detainees has been a problem. Here’s an Al Jazeera report about an effort made to acquire the prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.
    Rather than going into detail about the completely messed up affair, if someone has any interest, I can provide details, including the attempts to defraud the entire community.

  6. mikedow says:

    Rep. Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire added an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill that would legalize torture…sorry, interrogation techniques, and keep them secret.

  7. KevinNevada says:

    Nothing clarifies just how corrupt this country is now, than the toxic relationship between the WOD, the Immigration War, and the Fed’s and the various states and these private prison companies.
    Add in the public unions for the prison guards (which have enormous power in places such as California, where Republican governors pander them as readily as do Democrats) and the stage is set for Incarceration Nation.

    When Arizona had a really horrible prison escape last year, four people including two murderers, they broke out of a badly-run private prison in Kingman.

    And that are not the only corrupt influence on such things as the WOD. When California was considering a marijuana legalization initiative in 2010, the money and vocal campaign against that sensible measure came from the counties of the Marijuana Coast: Mendecino, Humbolt and Del Norte counties, where growing the stuff illegally is now the basis of their economy.

    The fishing and the lumbering have declined, they are dependent upon marijuana now, and the stuff has to be illegal for them to corner that segment of California’s agriculture.

  8. bluthner says:

    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 calculus isn’t irrational, it’s just reprehensible: the people who respond to the propaganda pushing for more and more prisons are generally quite clear in their minds about what or sort of people will be locked up in them. Which would be the same sort of people from whom they ‘want their country back’.

    catpcha attempt number: 2

  9. Expat says:

    Which would be the same sort of people from whom they ‘want their country back’.

    Would you care to elaborate on that Bluthner ?

  10. bluthner says:


    Who do you think that mantra is directed at by those who chant it? Who is supposed to have taken the country they all imagine existed once upon a time away from them?

    2nd try

  11. gunnison says:

    If the captcha thing is driving you up the wall every time you wish to comment, why not register? You will have to navigate the captcha once when you register, then once logged in you should never see it again, evermore.
    I agree that the captcha makes commenting more involved, which is kinda the whole point – bots don’t handle involved very well, so they can’t sneak in under the fence.
    I’m taking a leaf out of Herman Cain’s book – it’s the “electric fence and moat full of alligators” approach, digitally applied. Registration is your documentation.
    I know it’s a pain for unregistered (or not logged-in) users, and I don’t like that, but it’s saving me twenty or thirty minutes per day already, which ain’t peanuts.

  12. Expat says:

    Who do you think that mantra is directed at by those who chant it?

    I was actually asking who you thought it was Bluthner.

    But I’ll go first.

    They want to take it back from those who would herd its citizens further and further away from hardy self reliance and towards ever more dependence on the state. Now I’ll admit that takes a romanticized view of what in reality was a hard scrabble past.

    But I suspect that wasn’t what you were thinking.

  13. bluthner says:


    I’ve tried to register but it keeps crashing my browser. I suspect I am running an out of date version. So I need to do something about that first. It does seem to work every time on the second go round. could that be on purpose to outwit clever bots?


    There was me thinking that, generally, when someone starts ululating about ‘taking their country back’, the thieving culprits they tend to have in mind are ethnic minorities almost

  14. bluthner says:

    Or immigrants. But of course, you know, not the ones from Canada.

  15. Expat says:

    There was me thinking that, generally, when someone starts ululating about ‘taking their country back’, the thieving culprits they tend to have in mind are ethnic minorities almost…..always…..Or immigrants.

    Then you are very wrong. At least as far as the USA is concerned. Sure there are a few lingering racists and xenophobes but far less than in the old countries that pretty much define themselves by tribe and race and language.

    If the confidence in your view of the world is based or even just reinforced by the belief that anyone who doesn’t share that view is automatically racist, bigoted, uncompassionate or otherwise morally deficient then you will forever be confused, surprised and probably disappointed with the political landscape in America.

    The Tea Party arose to protest creeping statism in the USA. Very simple and straightforward. Its critics added the complications. As far as I can tell OWS are protesting rampant crony capitalism which in my opinion is fueled by the creeping statism. They seem to be adding their own complications with talk of new paradigms and remaking modernity.

  16. Elena says:

    Expat hardy self reliance? What does that even mean in the 21st century?

    And creeping statism is what is wanted by 99% of the population. After September 11 the Patriot Act was introduced and it was virtually unopposed. Because people wanted the government to keep them safe.

    They want to drink clean water, breathe clean air, and they want some sort of regulatory framework to prevent corporations running roughshod over them.

    Because corporations are not too good at self regulation – or hadn’t you noticed?

    Creeping satisism is not due to Obama rubbing his hands with glee because he gets to run everybody’s life. No sirreee… its due to the vast majority of Americans who want protection. They want certainty.

    The bad news is government cannot providec certainty. And politicians – democrat and republican – are absolutely terrible at admitting that fact.

  17. Elena says:

    And Expat, you are right, OWS is not remaking modernity.

    But the internet is. And OWS is using the internet and trying (probably failing) to get back to basic democratic principles. People power.

    But maybe a seed is being planted. Just maybe.

  18. bluthner says:

    Expat I tried to reply yesterday but catchpa wouldn’t allow me. I’ll try again today, being more careful to save the typing first. Elena is right, above, but just to add: I never called anyone a bigot or a racist. When those old, white angry TeaHeads stand up and shout, with quivering
    chin, “I want my country back!” (I’ve been there, seen them do it) that doesn’t make them racists, it makes them toxically nostalgic. For a country they think they remember from their youth, a country still governed, just, by the WASP ascendency, stirred by patriotic tunes they still understood, etc etc. Now they look around and see faces they don’t recognize, hear music they don’t like or even think is music, everyone is cursing, is cynical, nobody can get an honest muscle job, the cars aren’t American, the food isn’t American, boys are wearing their trousers around their knees, the future looks shaky and dangerous, there is a Kenyan Socialist Marxist in the White House (are you forgetting that little TeaHead top-ten tune?)… Of course they want their country back, but of course it is that other country, that other continent, they want back, which is the past! And one where all the bad stuff has faded but the bright colors are still vibrant, and they were young….

  19. Expat says:

    No sirreee… its due to the vast majority of Americans who want protection. They want certainty.

    Sure Elena – secure the nation, maintain law and order, enforce contracts and maintain a shared infrastructure to enable people to build their lives in free association with other people.

    Beyond that you might be struggling to secure a majority. Unfortunately however there are many who after a few generations of “No you can’t!” now rely on the government.

    …..and yet in your own words

    The bad news is government cannot providec certainty. And politicians – democrat and republican – are absolutely terrible at admitting that fact.

    So why would any one want to double down on that option?

  20. Expat says:

    Bluthner – I tried to explain the fundamentals but you keep focusing on the kooks on the periphery. So like I said you will continue to be surprised, confused and disappointed.

    …..are you forgetting that little TeaHead top-ten tune?

    You are going to have to remind me.

  21. bluthner says:

    Expat I think you are being disingenuous.

    But the notion that the problems this country now face are a result of too much government is patently absurd.

    Also patently absurd is the notion that OWS is protesting about too much government. They are protesting about exactly the opposite.

  22. Expat says:

    Bluthner – I didn’t say that OWS were protesting about too much government. I said that they were protesting crony capitalism. At least as far as I can tell that is one of their complaints. I said that too much “government” fuels crony capitalism.

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