The industry has contracts requiring states cough up a certain quota of criminals to be imprisoned.
Prison is big business in the United States. In 2010, the nation’s private prisons held roughly 130,000 prisoners and 16,000 civil immigration detainees at any one point, leading to annual revenues for the two top private prison companies — Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group — of nearly $3 billion.
This has created a system in which holding more prisoners leads to more profits. “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws,” CCA wrote in its 2010 annual report. “For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.”
The report goes on:
“Legislation has been proposed in numerous jurisdictions that could lower minimum sentences for some non-violent crimes and make more inmates eligible for early release based on good behavior. Also, sentencing alternatives under consideration could put some offenders on probation with electronic monitoring who would otherwise be incarcerated. Similarly, reductions in crime rates or resources dedicated to prevent and enforce crime could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities.”
It has been recently revealed that the private prison industry not only wishes to control more prisons, but are lobbying the states to maintain demand for their services. In 2012, CCA sent a letter to 48 states offering to buy up their prisons as a remedy to their “challenging corrections budgets,” in exchange for a 20-year contract and an assurance that the state will maintain at least a 90 percent occupancy at the prison. In the Public Interest, an advocacy group pushing for an end to prison privatization, reviewed 62 state and local private prison contracts.
Of these, 41 had clauses requiring that the prisons have an occupancy between 80 and 100 percent. What this means is that these governments must secure enough prison-worthy convictions to prevent having to pay a forfeit on their contracts for the empty beds. Arizona, for example, has three prison contracts with 100 percent occupancy guarantees. Oklahoma has three contracts with 98 percent occupancy guarantees and Virginia has one contract with a 95 percent occupancy guarantee.
The interest of the public
Guarantees like these run counter to most states’ expressed goal of reducing the prison population. As the crime rate nationally continues to drop, the threshold of leniency for minor offenses also decreases, as governments must work harder to meet prison quotas. This is creating an increasingly perverse system in which incarceration reflects commercial — and not public safety — interests.
“It’s a real gamble for states to say, ‘Gee, we’re going to save a lot of money this way,'” said Zach Schiller, research director at Policy Matters Ohio, which studied Ohio’s sale of a state prison to Corrections Corporation of America. “The idea that we should do this because we need money on a one-time basis seems like awfully short-term thinking. If we want to talk about what our needs are for the budget, and what our needs are for housing prisoners, let’s look at those on a long-term basis and see what the best decisions are.”
Take, for instance, Arizona. In 2010, Gary and Linda Haas, an Oklahoma couple, were kidnapped from a New Mexico rest stop by John McCluskey, his girlfriend Casslyn Welch and Tracy Province. Welch helped McCluskey, Province and a third individual — who was apprehended earlier on — escape from an Arizona medium-security private prison. McCluskey ran a drug-smuggling business out of the prison, which bankrolled the escape.
The trio shot and burned Gary and Linda Haas. Prior to this kidnapping, the trio had kidnapped and released a pair of truckers.
Doubting the security of the prison and calling it “dysfunctional,” state officials stopped sending new inmates to the facility. In response, Management & Training Corp., the prison’s management group, threatened to sue, stating that a “line in their contract guaranteed that the prison would remain 97 percent full” and that the reduction in prison population cost the company nearly $10 million — for which they argued the state was responsible. In the end, the state was forced to renegotiate the contract, with the state paying the company $3 million for a lease on empty bed space while the company corrected the problems at the prison.
This focus on “filling beds” is warping the states’ obligations toward law enforcement. “It’s really shortsighted public policy to do anything that ties the hands of the state,” said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer and criminal justice expert at the University of Texas School of Public Affairs. “If there are these incentives to keep the private prisons full, then it is reducing the likelihood that states will adopt strategies to reduce prison costs by keeping more people out. When the beds are there, you don’t want to leave them empty.”
The profit motive
In light of the reality that the prison industry has actually lobbied for legislation that would increase the prison population — including mandatory minimum sentences, “three-strikes” laws, strengthened drug laws and illegal immigration laws, such as Arizona Senate Bill 1070, which makes it an arrestable offense to not present legal identification when asked by law enforcement — there seems to be a conflict of interest in play. This conflict is highlighted by the realization that from 2001 to 2011, the three largest private prisons firms spent $45 million on lobbyists and campaign donations on the federal and state level and is further highlighted in examination of the performance history of these prisons.
For example, in April, CCA admitted that they falsified roughly 4,800 hours of staffing records during a seven-month period in 2012 in violation of its contract with Idaho. CCA is facing a separate lawsuit from inmates alleging that the company knowingly falsified staff logs to hide understaffing. An Associated Press public records request of shift logs at the Idaho Correctional Center shows guards working 24, 36 and 48 hours consecutively with no recorded breaks.
Last week, two female officers from the Jack Harwell Detention Center — a private prison in Waco, Texas — were arrested over allegations that they had improper sexual relations with inmates. The allegations are based on traced phone calls with an inmate in which sexual acts were discussed and the direct testimony of the inmate — who alleges that he had sexual contact with a female guard four times between 2011 and 2013.
In 2002, two judges — Mark Ciavarella, Jr. and Michael Conahan — ordered the Luzerne County, Penn. public detention center defunded, claiming it was in “poor condition” and ordered “placement guarantee agreements” with PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care to house the county’s juvenile offenders. Not only did the judges receive kickbacks for the 6,500 teenagers they sent to PA Child Care, the judges were also paid to facilitate the building of the private facilities. While the judges were found guilty of wire fraud and income tax fraud, no one with the detention centers’ management companies were held liable.
These are not isolated incidents. “In order to maintain a profitable industry, private prisons cut corners with indisputably devastating results,” wrote AFSCME in its report, “Making a Killing: How Prisons Corporations Are Profiting From Campaign Contributions and Putting Taxpayers at Risk.” “Private prisons routinely experience more inmate escapes and higher rates of violence higher rates of violence higher rates of violence due to chronically lax security and poorly trained, minimally paid staff. ‘The Bureau of Justice Assistance reported that private prisons experienced 49% more assaults on staff and 65% more inmate-to-inmate assaults than public prisons.’ The most egregious incidences of violence and disruption at private prisons demonstrate what happens when America’s prisons are run to make a profit. A review of some of the most notable headlines in 2010 demonstrates that after more than 25 years, the private prison model remains a recipe for disaster.”
Moral repercussions and profiteering
While the benefits of private prisons to the states are dubious — most of the cost analyses the states quote came from the private prison industry itself — the moral implications of this is not. While the philosophy that “the government that governs less governs best” can be debated, the notion of delegating critical state services to the commercial sector introduces the risk that the profit motive will lead to a performance less than the quality expected from keeping the service in the public sector. With the prison system — which involves the lives of millions of people — “cutting corners” to save money on a budget sheet can dramatically affect lives, both inside and outside of the prison walls.
But, as the prison population continues to decline in reflection of a shrinking crime rate, one must ask how an industry built on prisoners can survive and stay profitable. While the logic of states renting empty beds eludes most, it is reflective of the ultimate price lobbying plays in politics today. Situations like mandatory occupancy reflect a political environment separate from the public good and more in line with outright profiteering. One must ask — in a system where now many states, such as California, now have a prison system packed beyond maximum capacity — why would politicians have allowed a vested party, such as the private prison industry, to help draft policy?
“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Shakyra Diaz, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. “In order to have it at 90 percent, you need to be able to make criminals to fill it at 90 percent.”