In an age when freedom is fast becoming the exception rather than the rule, imprisoning Americans in private prisons run by mega-corporations has turned into a cash cow for big business. At one time, the American penal system operated under the idea that dangerous criminals needed to be put under lock and key in order to protect society. Today, as states attempt to save money by outsourcing prisons to private corporations, the flawed yet retributive American “system of justice” is being replaced by an even more flawed and insidious form of mass punishment based upon profit and expediency.
Consider this: despite the fact that violent crime in America has been on the decline, the nation’s incarceration rate has tripled since 1980. Approximately 13 million people are jailed in any given year. Incredibly, more than 6 million people are under “correctional supervision” in America, meaning that one in 50 Americans are working their way through the prison system, either as inmates, or while on parole or probation. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the majority of those being held in federal prisons are convicted of drug offenses — namely, marijuana. Presently, one out of every 100 Americans is serving time behind bars.
Little wonder, then, that public prisons are overcrowded. Yet while providing security, housing, food, medical care, etc., for 6 million Americans is a hardship for cash-strapped states, to profit-hungry corporations such as Corrections Corp of America (CCA) and GEO Group, the leaders in the partnership corrections industry, it’s a $70 billion gold mine. Thus, with an eye toward increasing its bottom line, CCA has floated a proposal to prison officials in 48 states offering to buy and manage public prisons at a substantial cost savings to the states. In exchange, and here’s the kicker, the prisons would have to contain at least 1,000 beds and states would have agree to maintain a 90 percent occupancy rate in the privately run prisons for at least 20 years.
The problem with this scenario, as Roger Werholtz, former Kansas secretary of corrections, recognizes is that while states may be tempted by the quick infusion of cash, they “would be obligated to maintain these (occupancy) rates and subtle pressure would be applied to make sentencing laws more severe with a clear intent to drive up the population.” Unfortunately, that’s exactly what has happened [with] three-strike laws (mandating sentences of 25 years to life for multiple felony convictions) and “truth-in-sentencing” legislation (mandating that those sentenced to prison serve most or all of their time).
Part of the investment pitch include the profits to be made in building “kindler, gentler” minimum-security facilities designed for detaining illegal immigrants, especially low-risk detainees like women and children. With immigration a persistent problem in the southwestern states, especially, and more than 250 such detention centers going up across the country, there is indeed money to be made. For example, GEO’s new facility in Karnes County, Texas, boasts a “608-bed facility … stretch[ing] across a 29-acre swath of farmland in rural South Texas. Rather than prison cells, jumpsuits, and barbed wire fencing, detainees here will sleep in eight-bed dormitory-style quarters, wearing more cozy attire like jeans and T-shirts. The facility’s high walls enclose lush green courtyards with volleyball courts, an AstroTurfed soccer field, and basketball hoops, where detainees are free to roam throughout the day.” All of this, of course, comes at taxpayer expense.
“And this is where it gets creepy,” observes reporter Joe Weisenthal for Business Insider, “because as an investor you’re pulling for scenarios where more people are put in jail.” In making its pitch to potential investors, CCA points out that private prisons comprise a unique, recession-resistant investment opportunity, with more than 90 percent of the market up for grabs, little competition, high recidivism among prisoners, and the potential for “accelerated growth in inmate populations following the recession.” In other words, caging humans for profit is a sure bet, because the U.S. population is growing dramatically and the prison population will grow proportionally as well, and more prisoners equal more profits.
In this way, under the pretext of being tough on crime, state governments can fatten their coffers and fill the jail cells of their corporate benefactors. However, while a flourishing privatized prison system is a financial windfall for corporate investors, it bodes ill for any measures aimed at reforming prisoners and reducing crime. CCA understands this. As it has warned investors, efforts to decriminalize certain activities, such as drug use, could cut into their profits. So too would measures aimed at reducing the prison system’s disproportionately racist impact on minorities, given that the incarceration rate for blacks is seven times that of whites. Immigrants are also heavily impacted, with roughly 2.5 million people having been through the immigration detention system since 2003. As private prisons begin to dominate, the many troubling characteristics of our so-called criminal justice system today — racism, economic inequality, inadequate access to legal representation, lack of due process, etc. — will only become more acute.
Doubtless, a system already riddled by corruption will inevitably become more corrupt, as well. For example, consider the “kids for cash” scandal. For 10 years, the Mid Atlantic Youth Service Corp., which specializes in private prisons for juvenile offenders, paid two judges to jail youths and send them to private prison facilities. The judges, who made over $2.6 million in the scam, had more than 5,000 kids come through their courtrooms and sent many of them to prison for petty crimes such as trespassing in vacant buildings. When the scheme finally came to light, one judge was sentenced to 17.5 years in prison and the other received 28 years.
In this way, minor criminals, from drug users to petty thieves, are being handed over to corporations for lengthy prison sentences which do nothing to protect society or prevent recidivism. This is the culmination of an inverted justice system which has come to characterize the U.S., a justice system based upon increasing the power and wealth of the corporate-state.
No matter what the politicians or corporate heads might say, prison privatization is neither fiscally responsible nor in keeping with principles of justice. It simply encourages incarceration for the sake of profits, while causing millions of Americans, most of them minor, nonviolent criminals, to be handed over to corporations for lengthy prison sentences which do nothing to protect society or prevent recidivism. This perverse notion of how prisons should be run, that they should be full at all times, and full of minor criminals, is evil.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute.