‘Profiteers of Misery’: The U.S. Private Prison Industrial Complex
By the end of 2010, the United States was home to 25 percent of the world’s inmates, with roughly 2.4 million people behind bars and over seven million under “correctional supervision”.
In any given year, 13 million people pass through the U.S. detention system, which includes federal and state facilities; Native American, juvenile, military and local jails; U.S. detention centres overseas and holding centres operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Elsie Scott, president of the Black Congressional Caucus, said at a press conference in D.C. earlier this year that the bill for housing prisoners was astronomical - at nearly 68 dollars a day per person.
In her book ‘The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness’, Michelle Alexander writes that even with crime rates on the decline, the U.S. prison population quintupled in just two decades, between 1980 and 2010.
It would seem that the case for reducing incarceration rates could not be stronger - especially for taxpayers and state and federal governments.
However, one group of people has a vested interest in keeping prisons as full as possible - the private prison corporations and their shareholders.
According to a recent report by the Justice Policy Institute, the U.S.’s two largest private prison companies - Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group - pocketed collective annual revenues of 2.9 billion dollars at the close of 2010.
The report, called ‘Gaming the System’, also found that since 2000, the number of prisoners held in private federal facilities increased by 120 percent, while those detained in private state facilities shot up by 33 percent - even though the same time period showed a mere 16 percent increase in the total prison population.
The report states, “While private prison companies may try to present themselves as just meeting existing ‘demand’ for prison beds and responding to current ‘market‛ conditions, in fact they have worked hard over the past decade to create markets for their product… As revenues of private prison companies have grown over the past decade, the companies have had more resources with which to build political power, and they have used this power to promote policies that lead to higher rates of incarceration.”
Prison corporations make no secret of their strictly business approach to the justice system or the victims of its harsh penalties.
CCA’s 2010 annual report states categorically that, “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 - 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.”
CCA continues, “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 behaviour, (while) sentencing alternatives under consideration could put some offenders on probation 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.”
In effect, the private prison industry creates both demand for and supply of prisoners in order to sustain an ever-expanding market for their “products and services” - all the while raking in enormous profit - at the expense of primarily minor offenders who might otherwise be granted a second chance at freedom.
Given that a full 50 percent of the U.S.’s prisoners are jailed for non-violent drug-possession charges - most of them young African American men - while one million immigrants have passed through ICE’s detention and deportation systems since President Barack Obama came to power in 2008, racial justice and immigrant rights groups are at the forefront of the struggle against private prison systems.
In May, when the governor of Georgia passed Senate Bill 87 - its version of Arizona’s notorious anti- immigration law - rights groups were quick to point the finger at for-profit prisons and their lobbyists for sponsoring what many experts have called some of the harshest, most racially charged immigration legislation in recent history.
At the time, Larry Pellegrini, executive director of the Georgia Rural Urban Summit, noted that CCA had a strong lobbying presence in the Georgia legislature. He added that passage of Senate Bill 87 was part of a national effort brought together by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) - a task force that included a representative from a private prison company and was instrumental in drafting Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070.
Meanwhile, the report found that in 2010 alone CCA, GEO and Cornel Companies - the third largest prison corporation - doled out over two million dollars on state politics, including monies to senators, federal candidates and members of the House of Representatives.
While rights groups and advocacy organisations are largely powerless against the bulging wallets of the private prison lobbyists, a new strategy has emerged to fuel the movement against corporate greed.
Enlace, an alliance of low-wage worker centres, unions, and community organisations in the U.S. and Mexico that wage international campaigns against “abusive transnational corporations”, is currently embarked on a Prison Industry Divestment Campaign to break private prisons’ stranglehold on the justice system.
"We were initially fighting for the rights of economic refugees who flooded the U.S. to escape the consequences of disastrous banking policies imposed on Mexico by U.S. banks like Bank of America and Chase in 1995," Peter Cervantes-Gautschi, the executive director of Enlace, told IPS. "By raising interest rates in Mexico to astronomical levels, these banks essentially forced millions of people out of their jobs and homes, causing them to flee to the U.S. only to find a huge anti-immigrant movement fuelled largely by for-profit prisons - and behind them, the same financial services sector that caused the crisis in Mexico to begin with."
"Companies like Wells Fargo, General Electric, Fidelity Investments - these are the major funders of the private prison industry in the U.S.," Cervantes-Gautschi said. "So we are now calling on all institutions both public and private to divest support from this industry… There is no need for it - incarcerating people for profit is simply not an acceptable business."
"Most people who have investments - whether through a pension or 401K or church donation - have them in the private prison industry without knowing it," he added. "So people need to tell their investors to take their money out of private prison companies."
"Just like people all over the world joined the divestment movement against apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, we are building support to bring an (end) to a system that is costing tax payers millions, while at the same time causing a huge amount of suffering - and this is really indefensible," he concluded.