Our dysfunctional justice system and greed provide a foundation for for-profit prisons. What are for-profit prisons? Also called private prisons, they are places where inmates are physically confined—incarcerated—by private companies that contract with states or the federal government to alleviate overcrowding in their respective prison systems. These private companies fill a need created by cruel conviction and sentencing practices, high rates of recidivism, illegal immigration allegations, and the continuing war on drugs.
For-Profit Prisons Are Growing Out of Control
According to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in a Huffpost Politics blog: “Between 1990 and 2010, the number of for-profit prisons in this country has increased by 1,600 percent. There are now 130 private prisons in this country, with a total of over 157,000 beds.”
Sanders goes on to say, “Through organizations like ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), the prison industry has promoted state laws that increase incarceration rates for nonviolent offenses.” Doing so is good for business. Tactics used by ALEC and other large private prison companies such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the American Correctional Association are intended to keep facilities full and profits high. For example:
- “In the past decade, three major private prison companies spent $45 million on campaign donations and lobbyists to push legislation at the state and federal level,” Aviva Shen reports in a Think Progress article. “At times, this money has gone to truly nefarious legislation. A 2011 report found that the private prison industry spent millions seeking to increase sentences and incarcerate more people in order to increase the industry’s profits.”
- Private prison corporations and their affiliates do everything they can to tactically take advantage of the powerless public to make money off people in prison—and their families. Bernie Sanders reports that “according to the Nation’s Liliana Segura, . . . Global Tel*Link charges more than $1 per minute for families and friends to speak with their loved ones in prison.” Sanders goes on to quote FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn: “2.7 million children in the United States have an incarcerated parent. Many of them suffer immeasurably when such unaffordable rates rob them of parental contact.”
- “A Huffington Post report entitled ‘Prisoners of Profit,’” Sanders continues, “paints a vivid picture of the widespread abuse and brutality—including fatal medical neglect and sexual abuse [in private prisons]. In the “’kids for cash’ scandal, businesspeople actually paid judges to send young people to their often-brutal facilities—many times for very minor infractions.” (Viewers of Showtime’s Billionaire will recognize this disturbing plot line.)
- I’ve read that in California, inmates are transferred to states such as Arizona without notice and without regard to the problems this creates for visitation by the inmates’ family members. Meeting the 100 percent occupancy rate of the out-of-state private prisons blindly motivates the transfer of prisoners.
According to David McGlothlin of the Justice Policy Institute,“Arizona trumps all states’ inmate quotas with three private prison facilities requiring 100 percent occupancy.” McGlothlin says critics argue, and I agree, that this mandate “provides incentives to keep prison beds full, running counter to many states’ trend of reducing prison populations, sentencing lengths, and corrections spending.”
Mike Ludwig of Truthout reports the following:
Despite political momentum around prison and sentencing reforms, 2015 was another good year for the private prison business, thanks to “long-term customer relationships” and “strong and predictable occupancy rates,” as the private prison firm GEO Group puts it.
In annual reports recently submitted to federal regulators, GEO Group and CCA reported $139 million and $222 million in profits, respectively, over the past year. That translates to profit margins of $2,135 and $3,356 per prisoner held in facilities run by the companies, according to the watchdog group In the Public Interest.
The private prison business is booming despite well-documented problems and alleged human rights abuses, including several deaths in recent years at private immigrant jails with inadequate medical care. GEO Group and CCA have both enjoyed steady increases in annual revenue over the past fifteen years, and the companies reported a combined $3.6 billion in revenue during 2015 alone.
This obscene amount of money would be better spent on the rehabilitation of inmates for their return to their families and reentry into society, and for mental health care, critical drug rehabilitation, continued education, and job placement.
Ludwig, who quotes Bernie Sanders as calling private prisons “a racket,” says that “most of the prison industry’s revenue comes from tax dollars and fees paid by prisoners themselves,” and that “this money could instead be spent on rehabilitation programs and alternatives to incarceration.”
Additionally, Carimah Townes of Think Progress quotes Sanders: “It is unacceptable that companies like Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group are spending tens of millions of dollars lobbying members of Congress and state legislatures all over this country to keep more Americans behind bars for longer and longer sentences. That has got to end.”
What Can You Do?
Where can you learn more about prison expansion and how to stop the movement? Short and simple guides and fact sheets are available from Community Alternatives to Jail Expansion. Here are the best places to start:
- A How-to-Guide to Organizing for Alternatives to Jail Expansion in Your Community
- Rising Detention and Growth of Local Jails
- Why Not in My County? Cost-Effective Solutions to Jail Overcrowding
You can also join Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), a statewide coalition of grassroots organizations working to reduce the number of people in prisons, reduce the number of prisons in the state, and shift state and local spending from corrections and policing to human services.
What are your thoughts about private prisons? Let me know in the comments section.
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