The whole notion of letting private corporations run American prisons is abominable, going back to 1852 when California opened the first such institution, the now state-run San Quentin Prison.
Privatization failed to gain traction, and governments ran prisons, which, after all, are extensions of the governments’ judicial systems, until Ronald Reagan took over the White House.
Reagan, an avid proponent of turning public institutions into centers for private profits, inaugurated a building boom, with privately owned and operated prisons proliferating like noxious weeds across the country.
The prison contractors have emerged as the nation’s most potent lobbying force, reported the Washington Post in April, 2o15:
The two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States – GEO and Corrections Corporation of America – and their associates have funneled more than $10 million to candidates since 1989 and have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts. Meanwhile, these private companies have seen their revenue and market share soar. They now rake in a combined $3.3 billion in annual revenue and the private federal prison population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute. Private companies house nearly half of the nation’s immigrant detainees, compared to about 25 percent a decade ago, a Huffington Post report found. In total, there are now about 130 private prisons in the country with about 157,000 beds.
The Justice Policy Institute identified the private-prison industry’s three-pronged approach to increase profits through political influence: lobbying, direct campaign contributions, and building relationships and networks.
One current presidential candidate, Libertarian Gary Johnson, won the New Mexico governorship on a platform which included the promise to privatize all prisons in his state.
From the Sentencing Project:
Gary Johnson’s platform during his initial 1994 run for governor of New Mexico included a pledge to privatize every prison in the state. By the time he left office in 2003 44.2 percent of the state’s prisoners were in privately run facilities.
And the Obama administration jumped on the bandwagon, no doubt with the prompting of his former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who since decamping to win the job of mayor of Chicago has ruthlessly privatized public housing, schools, parking meters, nursing services, and more.
It’s no wonder that private prisons are an American corporate success story: With only five percent of the planet’s population, the U.S. accounts for 25 percent of the global incarceration population.
Mapping the Prison/Industrial Complex
This map, from the federal Bureau of Prisons, shows the locations of prisons currently run by private corporations on behalf of the notional government:
Another map, this time from The Private Prison Project, shows the locations of state and federal prisons run by the three largest private prison corporations:
Federal prisons mushroom, violence reigns
So how effective are private contractors at running their prisons?
A just-released review of private federal prisons by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General concluded:
We found that in a majority of the categories we examined, contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP [Bureau of Prisons — esnl] institutions. We analyzed data from the 14 contract prisons that were operational during the period of our review and from a select group of 14 BOP institutions with comparable inmate populations to evaluate how the contract prisons performed relative to the selected BOP institutions. Our analysis included data from FYs [fiscal years — esnl] 2011 through 2014 in eight key categories: (1) contraband, (2) reports of incidents, (3) lockdowns, (4) inmate discipline, (5) telephone monitoring, (6) selected grievances, (7) urinalysis drug testing, and (8) sexual misconduct. With the exception of fewer incidents of positive drug tests and sexual misconduct, the contract prisons had more incidents per capita than the BOP institutions in all of the other categories of data we examined.
And just how much more violent are private prisons compared to prisons run by Uncle Sam?
One chart from the Inspector General’s report says it all:
A massive release of documents acquired by The Nation revealed a stunning lack of concern:
[N]ew records show that BOP monitors documented, between January 2007 and June 2015, the deaths of 34 inmates who were provided substandard medical care. Fourteen of these deaths occurred in prisons run by CCA. Fifteen were in prisons operated by the GEO Group. The BOP didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment or to written questions before deadline.
The records and interviews with former BOP officials reveal a pattern: Despite dire reports from dozens of field monitors, top bureau officials repeatedly failed to enforce the correction of dangerous deficiencies and routinely extended contracts for prisons that failed to provide adequate medical care.
The Obama administration greases the skids
And that brings us to the latest boondoggle, reported by the Washington Post:
As Central Americans surged across the U.S. border two years ago, the Obama administration skipped the standard public bidding process and agreed to a deal that offered generous terms to Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest prison company, to build a massive detention facility for women and children seeking asylum.
The four-year, $1 billion contract — details of which have not been previously disclosed — has been a boon for CCA, which, in an unusual arrangement, gets the money regardless of how many people are detained at the facility. Critics say the government’s policy has been expensive but ineffective. Arrivals of Central American families at the border have continued unabated while court rulings have forced the administration to step back from its original approach to the border surge.
In hundreds of other detention contracts given out by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, federal payouts rise and fall in step with the percentage of beds being occupied. But in this case, CCA is paid for 100 percent capacity even if the facility is, say, half full, as it has been in recent months. An ICE spokeswoman, Jennifer Elzea, said that the contracts for the 2,400-bed facility in Dilley and one for a 532-bed family detention center in Karnes City, Tex., given to another company, are “unique” in their payment structures because they provide “a fixed monthly fee for use of the entire facility regardless of the number of residents.”
The rewards for CCA have been enormous: In 2015, the first full year in which the South Texas Family Residential Center was operating, CCA — which operates 74 facilities — made 14 percent of its revenue from that one center while recording record profit. CCA declined to specify the costs of operating the center.
Prisons and presidential politics
Marco Rubio was the private prison industry’s favorite son, the source of both their largess and of legislation that gained them even greater profits, as the Washington Post reported last year:
Marco Rubio is one of the best examples of the private prison industry’s growing political influence, a connection that deserves far more attention now that he’s officially launched a presidential bid. The U.S. senator has a history of close ties to the nation’s second-largest for-profit prison company, GEO Group, stretching back to his days as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. While Rubio was leading the House, GEO was awarded a state government contract for a $110 million prison soon after Rubio hired an economic consultant who had been a trustee for a GEO real estate trust. Over his career, Rubio has received nearly $40,000 in campaign donations from GEO, making him the Senate’s top career recipient of contributions from the company. (Rubio’s office did not respond to requests for comment.).
And while Hillary Clinton has made some statements about reining in the trend, as with so many things, her promises may well prove a facade, and the Intercept reported in June:
The chief executive of the largest private prison company in America reassured investors earlier this month that with either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in the White House, his firm will be “just fine.” Damon Hininger, the chief executive of Corrections Corporation of America, was speaking at the REITWeek investor forum.
Private prisons have received a great deal of criticism this election cycle, first with Bernie Sanders campaigning to end for-profit incarceration, followed by Clinton taking up a similar pledge.
After The Intercept revealed that the Clinton campaign had received campaign donations from private prison lobbyists, a number of activist groups confronted Clinton, leading her to announce that she would no longer accept the money and later declaring that “we should end private prisons and private detention centers.”
But Corrections Corporation is apparently not concerned. Asked about prospects under Trump or Clinton, Hininger argued that his company has prospered through political turnover by taking advantage of the government’s quest for lower costs.