MONEY MAKING MACHINE- PRIVATE PRISONS
By: Jennifer Carroll | August 20, 2015
(Source: The Daily Banter)
While the United States only holds 5% of the world’s population, we hold 25% of the world’s prison population. We are the world’s largest jailer. The ACLU found that “the United States imprisons more people- both per capita and in absolute terms- than any other nation in the world, including Russia, China, and Iran.” The United States prison system has increasingly become less of a haven to rehabilitate and punish those in our society who break the law and more of a money-making machine influenced primarily by dollar signs. In requiring minimum mandatory sentences for non-violent offenders and contractually obligating itself to prisoner quotas of almost 100% in many prisons, the privatization of housing criminals has lost sight of what should be its main goal. When maximizing profits and filling beds at privately run institutions becomes the main priority of our justice system, who really benefits?
The privatization of prisons began in the 1970’s when President Richard Nixon implemented the “War on Drugs.” The War on Drugs included drug prohibition policies and mandatory minimum sentencing enacted to reduce drug use and presence in our country. Unfortunately, the crack down on drugs in America by Nixon and continuing presidents increased the prison population exponentially. Between 1960 and 1980 total arrests in the United State rose by 28% and the number of drug-related offenses increased by more than 127%. As a result, state and local governments began outsourcing to private prison companies to meet the demand the War on Drugs created. Today, 40% of all federal and state inmates are non-violent drug offenders and our prison population has risen by over 700% in the last 30 years. As of 2011, around half of all prisoners incarcerated in state facilities were imprisoned for non-violent crimes, while half of all offenders in federal prison were serving time for drug-related offenses.
At the moment, private prisons have become a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States. For-profit prison companies contract with federal and state governments to house people in a privately constructed prison and even take over management of state-run facilities in recent cases. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest owner of for-profit prison facilities in America, had revenue of $1.7 billion dollars in 2013. Of that, CCA made $300 million in profits, 100% of which was funded by taxpayers via government contracts. CCA operates 66 correctional and detention facilities, of which they own 53, with a total of 86,000 beds in 20 states and Washington D.C. They operate 44% of private corrections and detention beds in the United States with approximately 90 agreements with various state and local agencies. To profit off of the imprisonment of people, CCA charges a daily rate per person incarcerated to cover investment operating costs. To turn their biggest profit, Corrections Corporation of America contracts include required clauses that guarantee occupancy rates for its prisoners, also known as “bed guarantee clauses.” In other words, the more individuals locked up, the more profit earnings for CCA and its shareholders. In the Public Interest found that not only are prisoner quotas normal, but that out of 60 contracts they analyzed between state or local governments and private prison companies, 65% or nearly two-thirds of contracts contained “language mentioning prisoner quotas.” The number of individuals held in private prisons from 1999-2010 grew by 80% versus 18% in not for-profit federal institutions.
Not only are the pressures of bed requirements a problem for our justice system, they are essentially a problem for us, the taxpayers, as well. For-profit prisons incomes are entirely through government contracts that use taxpayer money. These contracts don’t only require a mandated occupancy rate; they guarantee that if the rate is not met they will be paid money for not meeting the quota. In fact, the private prison company Management & Training Corp., sued the state of Arizona in 2011 for $16 million dollars for not meeting their prisoner bed occupancy rate. The average bed occupancy rate for prisons in Arizona is between 97% and 100%. The state settled with the company for $3 million dollars. In essence, Arizona payed a company millions of dollars because not enough people were committing crimes. Investing in private prisons is also big business. The Vanguard Group and Fidelity Investments are not only America’s top 401(k) providers; they are also two of the private prison industries biggest investors owning 20% of both CCA & GEO, the largest private prison corporations, together. This means that almost anyone with a 401(k) is investing in private prisons. Public employees in Florida, for example, invested $10.3 million in private prisons through 401(k)’s in 2013 alone, according to Vice.com. Taxpayers spent $68.7 billion in 2008 alone to feed, clothe, and provide medical care to prisoners in county jails, state and federal prisons. Corrections spending, as a share of state budgets, rose faster than health care, education, and natural resources spending from 1986 to 2010. Wouldn’t it be more cost effective to taxpayers if the government implements civil citation for first time, nonviolent offenders as an alternative to incarceration? Of course with the dollar incentive for private prisons, contributions to law makers and money given to government entities, no wonder incarceration is the preferred choice.
It is important to be aware of the effect of private prisons on our justice system and our citizens. The evidence alone shows that we are putting unnecessary contractual agreements with private corporations above the safety and well-being of the citizens they have a responsibility to care for and rehabilitate. Not only do many studies show that for numerous offenses incarceration has little to no impact on public safety, but experts also argue that requirements of prisoner quotas also create an incentive for “policy makers to focus on filling empty prison beds as opposed to pursuing long-term changes, such as prison reform.” Huffington Post even asserts that “many states are effectively obligated to continue to incarcerate people regardless of crime rates and public safety needs, or otherwise hand over taxpayer dollars in or order to satisfy private profit making companies.” Private prisons impede any possible progress in reducing either the number of people incarcerated or the laws used to put people behind bars. In many instances, private prison lobbyists advocate to put more Americans behind bars. CCA even acknowledged in recent 10-k filings with The Securities and Exchange Commission that its profitability may be hurt by “the relaxation of enforcement efforts and leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices, or through the decriminalization of certain activities.” One would then wonder: if the private prison corporations prioritize profit over both inmates incarcerated in prison and taxpayers outside of prison, are they really in the business to help anyone but themselves? A government that touts rehabilitation and reduction in recidivism as their goal should never agree to prison population guarantees. The emphasis of prisons should be on making sure hardened criminals are locked up for life and those that committed lesser offenses are trained and educated to be self-sufficient when they re-enter society, or utilize the option of civil citation. In requiring a bottom-line number of prisoners per facility to maximize profits, there can be no assurance or focus on prison reform or decreasing the number of our citizens behind bars and unable to progress productively in society.
It is safe to say, based on the evidence, that mass incarceration is a problem in America with 1 in 99 individuals imprisoned. The public good suffers when privately-owned companies create mandates requiring people to be convicted of crimes (some even falsely accused) in order for them to be successful. Today, there are 11 times as many people in jail for drug convictions than there were in 1980, with that number steadily increasing. Not only are we not helping these people by locking them up for mandatory-minimum sentences, in which they receive little to no help, learn no employable skills to help them be successful citizens upon release, we are, in most cases, teaching them to become better criminals. The system is also leaving them with for-profit companies that place greater significance on earning every dime out of their incarceration, than rehabilitating productive human beings. At a minimum, it is a conflict of interest for privately run corporations to house prisoners through mandatory occupancy rates to create a profit and at worse seeing public officials stay silent to this wrong.
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Childress, Sarah. "Feds to Reconsider Harsh Prison Terms for Drug Offenders." PBS, 09 Apr. 2014.
"Corrections Corporation of America." – Source Watch.
Downs, Ray. "Who''s Getting Rich off the Prison-Industrial Complex?” VICE. 17 May 2013.
Fernandez, David. "Rick Scott: Prison Profiteer." Fight for Florida. 1 Oct. 2014.
Kirkham, Chris. "Prison Quotas Push Lawmakers To Fill Beds, Derail Reform." The Huffington Post. 19 Sept. 2013.
"Private Prison Sues State for Not Having Enough Prisoner." Wondergressive. 12 Dec. 2013.
"Private Prisons to States: You''d Better Start Throwing More People In Prison Or We''ll Sue." If You Only News. 22 June 2015.
Sanders, Topher. "589 DAYS TO JUSTICE?" Florida-Times Union, 2 Aug. 2015.