The Greed of Private Prisons

By Brian Magee

A small but increasing amount of attention over the past decade is being paid to the increased use of private prisons in the U.S. Statistics are now showing that locking people up for profit is overriding the concept of jailing people in the name of justice.

A recent Associated Press investigation has determined one of the causes for a sharp increase in private prisons is the rise in the number of people locked up on immigration charges. In reaction to the 9/11 attacks, the country made changes to immigration laws that made it easier to detain more people and ended up being a major source of increased revenue for the country’s private prison companies.  The federal government uses contractors to keep nearly half of the 400,000 people being held on immigration charges. The AP also reports that “nearly every aspect” of a huge budget increase to house those charged with immigration violations in 2005 was given to private prison companies.

There exists a “mutually beneficial and evidently legal relationship between those who make corrections and immigration policy and a few prison companies,” the report concluded, adding that there’s essentially no cost savings being achieved, the main selling point used by those advocating for private prisons. The cost to house a prisoner being held by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has risen from $80 per person, per day in 2004 to $166 today, with the government refusing to provide details explaining the difference.

According to the AP report, “A decade ago, more than 3,300 criminal immigrants were sent to private prisons under two 10-year contracts the Federal Bureau of Prisons signed with [Corrections Corporation of America] worth $760 million. Now, the agency is paying the private companies $5.1 billion to hold more than 23,000 criminal immigrants through 13 contracts of varying lengths.”

Three companies receive the bulk of the prison contracts in the U.S.: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), The GEO Group, and Management and Training Corp. Private prison companies now house about half of the country’s prisoners, up from only about 10% a decade ago. The money these companies have spent on lobbying and campaign donations is estimated to be at least $45 million over the last decade, the AP found.  The result has been hundreds of millions of dollars in yearly profits.

Despite industry assurances to the contrary, a report from the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) last year indicated that lobbying efforts and campaign donations by private prison companies and their employees are done in order “to make money through harsh policies and longer sentences.” Similar to the conclusion of the AP investigation about the relationship between lawmakers and private prison companies, the JPI report concludes “the relationship between government officials and private prison companies has been part of the fabric of the industry from the start.”

A primary fear of this kind of relationship—a direct connection between those with power to send people to prison and the prisons themselves—has already happened. In Pennsylvania a judge has been given 17 years in prison for sentencing juveniles to a private facility in a “cash for kids” scandal. Many of those sent to private facilities were locked up for minor offences not normally subject to incarceration.

In another instance of abuse, it was reported that CCA was charging inmates five dollars per minute for phone calls at one facility in Georgia.

It’s not only immigration and juvenile detention scams that are allowing private prison companies to record millions of dollars in yearly profits. Drug users are another huge source of people to fill the growing number of private prison cells.

In a 2008 New York Times story titled “U.S. prison population dwarfs that of other nations,” it was pointed out that there were about 40,000 people in jails for drug offenses in 1980, much less than the 500,000 that were currently in jail on drug charges at the time. According to The Sentencing Project, those in federal prisons on drug charges have risen from 4,749 in 1980 to 97,472 in 2010. Over half of all people in federal prisons are there for drug crimes.

The Times story puts the number of prisoners at 2.3 million and points out it  is even more that the 1.6 million people China has in prisons, despite the fact that they have a population four times as large as the U.S. The reasons given by the Times for the huge numbers of people in U.S. jails and prisons are varied, but they include “higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racial turmoil, a special fervor in combating illegal drugs, the American temperament, and the lack of a social safety net. Even democracy plays a role, as judges — many of whom are elected, another American anomaly — yield to populist demands for tough justice.”

Stevenson adds that the increases also come from our response to poverty, mental illness, and race, among other factors, including “misguided three-strikes laws” and harsh penalties for minors—things hardly any other country does.  The Times story points out that Canada’s incarceration rate has remained stable while its crime rate has closely paralleled the U.S. For example, the average prison term for a burglar in the U.S. is 16 months while in Canada it’s only five months.

In addition to investors in private prisons pushing for their increased use to increase revenues, prison guard unions are lobbying to stop reforms that would allow for more early release eligibility and shorter sentences.  If there are fewer prisoners, there is a reduced need for guards which reduces the size and strength of the unions, providing a motivation to work against any move that would reduce the number of those behind bars.

There are efforts to challenging the move toward private prisons and maintaining long prison sentences for more people. The National Prison Divestment Campaign, launched in 2011, is one example. It is a coalition of groups pushing to get investors to pull out of private prison companies. The campaign is made up of religious groups, immigrant rights organizations and others with a criminal justice focus. The campaign has seen some successes in getting financial managers to pull funds from the private prison companies, as well as getting other companies, such as food suppliers, from not doing businesses with them. 

A profit motive is always going to influence public policy, which means justice and simple fairness can easily be overrun by those looking to make money, especially when lawmakers are looking out for a company’s profits, not its country’s citizens. With our country being a world leader when it comes to the numbers of people we put in prisons and jails, it’s an obvious target for those looking to make money, the same as it would be for any growth industry. Because businesses are in place to make money for its owners, any conflict with other factors—like justice and fairness—are secondary at best. 

If we want to save money in the prison system while working to advance a system of reasonable justice, the answer is not to privatize our prisons—adding the additional costs of maintaining large profits and funding lobbying costs—but to reduce the number of prisoners and the sentences they serve. It is immoral to create a system that has within it the motivation of money when it comes to taking away anyone’s freedom. No matter how many safeguards are promised, the greed brought to life by guaranteed profits paid for by taxpayers will always win. The only solution is to remove greed as much as possible from the structure.

Brian Magee is the communications associate for the American Humanist Association.