Locking up profits

Private prison companies strive to keep millions behind bars to keep their profits up.

us jail
One reason that the number of incarcerated people in the US remains high is that politicians are afraid to appear ‘soft’ on crime or illegal immigration [GALLO/GETTY]

With 1 in 100 American adults behind bars, falling crime rates and a cash-strapped economy, the United States would seem ripe for the kinds of national reforms that might keep people out of prison. Recent polls have shown that even our law-and-order-minded citizenry would rather see penalties eased for certain criminals than pay more money to keep them locked up.

A smattering of states, blue and red alike, have taken tentative steps to reduce their prison populations. Yet overall, the incarceration rate remains flat even as crime levels decrease and budget deficits grow. And on the federal level, the numbers of prisoners just keep growing; Congress, meanwhile, can’t even manage to pass a bill to study criminal justice reforms, much less make them.

What is it that’s keeping some 2.3 million people in prisons and jails across the United States, and thousands more in immigrant detention centres? In large part, it’s the timidity of politicians from both parties, who still fear appearing soft on crime or on illegal immigration.

Since the 1980s, through Republican and Democratic administrations alike, they have lengthened sentences and rolled back parole opportunities, leading to a 700 per cent increase in the US prison population. In the last 15 years, they have also overseen a five-fold increase in the numbers of undocumented immigrants jailed in detention centres.

Several new reports argue that the greed and influence of private prison companies, as well as the perfidy of politicians, plays a role in keeping prisons and detention centres teeming. According to Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration, a report released this month by the American Civil Liberties Union, “Today, for-profit companies are responsible for approximately 6 per cent of state prisoners, 16 per cent of federal prisoners”.

These companies have a vested interest in putting more people in prison and keeping them there longer – and they have the lobbying dollars to make it happen. By funding state and national campaigns, lobbying legislators and participating in influential conservative political organisations, they appear to have succeeded in shaping policies that enhance their bottom line, at the expense of a sane and affordable criminal justice system.

A second report, put out by the Detention Watch Network, asserts that private prison companies have been especially successful in influencing immigration policies and practices. Some 400,000 immigrants pass through the nation’s immigrant detention centres each year, at a cost to the taxpayers of $1.7bn. Nearly half of these immigrants are housed in 30 detention centres run by private companies under contract with the federal government; they are paid an average of $122 per day per resident.

Pumping money into lobbying

The industry leader in both private prisons and immigrant detention is Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), headquartered at Nashville, Tennessee, with gross revenues in 2010 of $1.69bn. CCA runs 60 prisons for federal, state and local governments, and owns 44 of them. All told they boast a capacity of 85,000 beds in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

Like any other serious corporate player in Washington, CCA pumps money into lobbying.

“Between 2003 and 2011, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, CCA hired 199 lobbyists in 32 states,” notes the Detention Watch report. On the federal level, according to the report, CCA spent more than $18 million on lobbying between 1999 and 2009, “often employing five or six firms at the same time,” and in 2010, CCA spent another $970,000 lobbying the federal government.

CCA also is involved in a network of conservative state political organisations that make up the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), until recently sitting on the board of its criminal justice task force and along with a bail bond organisation, working up model bills aimed at making convicted people serve full time, along with the famous three-strikes legislation.

It was launched in the early 1970s with the late Paul Weyerich, the Wisconsin conservative activist, as a founding member. Weyerich is credited with founding the Heritage Society, the prime conservative think tank in Washington during the Reagan years. While Heritage works at the federal level, ALEC working among the states. (Among ALEC’s most enthusiastic members has been Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, another big fan of private prisons.) Among other activities, these groups draft model legislation – which, in the area of criminal justice, have often been adopted into law.

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According to a third report on private prisons, titled Gaming the System and released earlier this year by the Justice Policy Institute, “Since the 1980s and 1990s, ALEC facilitated the production of model bills focusing on mandatory minimums, three strikes laws (giving 25 years to life in prison for repeat offences), and ‘truth-in-sentencing’ legislation (requiring people to serve most or all of their time without chance for parole), all of which are significant contributors to the dramatic increase in incarceration in the last 30 years.”

CCA played also appears to have influenced an infamous law in Arizona, SB 1070, which enables police to question and detain anyone who cannot prove they are in the country legally.

According to a report by NPR’s Laura Sullivan, the bill was based on model legislation conceived and drafted at an ALEC meeting where CCA officials were present. At least 30 of the bill’s 36 co-sponsors received campaign contributions from for-profit prison companies.

In addition, two of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s top advisers had previously worked as lobbyists for companies with private prison for clients. As the Justice Policy Institute notes, “SB 1070 is expected to result in more people being placed into Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, increasing the need for immigration detention beds and the likelihood of private prison contracts.” It has also become a model for legislation introduced in at least five other states.


The second largest for-profit prison company is the GEO Group, based in Boca Raton, Florida, with operations in South Africa, Australia and the UK, and gross revenues of $1.17bn in 2010. It runs 59 facilities with more than 53,000 beds. GEO spent more than $2 million on lobbying between 1999 and 2009.

GEO Group also has deep roots in conservative politics. It is a spin-off of the old Wackenhut private eye outfit, organised by George Wackenhut and three other FBI agents.

According to historian Frank J Donner, half of Wackenhut’s staff eventually was made up of former FBI agents, along with other rightists, most notably from the John Birch Society. At the height of McCarthyism in the 1950s it boasted a list of 2.5 million “subversives”, with 10,000 names added every week – the biggest such list outside of the FBI itself. After Watergate, Wackenhut claimed it had gotten rid of the list, and it concentrated on corrections, today running prisons, detention centres and mental health facilities. It designs and builds corrections facilities for states and the federal government, which it then manages on a contract basis.

In addition to lobbying, private prison companies also spend considerable cash on campaign contributions. According to the Justice Policy Institute’s report, “Since 2000, the three largest private prison companies – CCA, GEO, and Cornell Companies – have contributed $835,514 to federal candidates, including senators and members of the House of Representatives. Giving to state level politicians during the last five election cycles was… $6,092,331.”

When Texas Governor Rick Perry initiated his primary campaign earlier this year, he started promoting turning over Texas prison healthcare to private business as a means of cutting the budget deficit.

According to Tim Murphy in Mother Jones:

“That coincided with an influx of campaign contributions from private-prison executives and lobbyists, among them his former top aide, Michael Toomey, a political powerbroker who represents the nation’s largest private corrections contractor, Corrections Corporation of America… Toomey, who had not contributed directly to any of the governor’s previous gubernatorial campaigns, opened up his wallet for two separate $10,000 donations to Perry two months before Election Day in 2010. Thomas Beasley, the founder of CCA, has given $17,000 to Perry’s campaigns over the last decade. Another private prison firm, the GEO Group, poured $15,000 into Perry’s 2010 reelection effort in 2010 through its eponymous political action committee. Luis Gonzalez, a GEO Group lobbyist, meanwhile, gave $50,000 to Perry’s reelection bid.”

As the Justice Policy Institute points out, if states continue to cut corrections budgets, private prison companies will need to increase their market share in order to preserve their profit margins. This means they’ll need to work even harder to lobby, finance candidates and wield political influence over the American criminal justice system.

James Ridgeway is the senior Washington correspondent for Mother Jones magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.