“Banking on bondage”: The rise of private prisons in the U.S.

by Melanie Wilmoth

A recent report by the ACLU, “Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration,” details how the private prison industry feeds (and profits from) mass incarceration in the U.S.

As the ACLU points out, there are few who truly benefit from our country’s obsession with “tough-on crime” policies. With over 2.3 million people behind bars in the U.S, the punitive consensus driving mass incarceration has successfully shattered families and busted states’ budgets. However, there is one group that does benefits from locking up more and more people: the private prison industry.

Just as prison populations in public corrections facilities boomed over the last 30 years, the number of individuals in private prisons increased over 1600% between 1990 and 2009.

For private prisons, more crime equals more prisoners and more prisoners equals more profit. It’s no wonder that for-profit prisons support immigrant detention, mandatory minimum sentences, and “truth in sentencing” and “three strikes” laws. Large prison populations and harsh sentences result in greater profits. In fact, the success of the private prison industry relies on the country’s opposition to criminal justice reforms and fair sentencing laws:

“In a 2010 Annual Report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company, stated: ‘The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by…leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices…’

The GEO Group, the second largest private prison operator, identified similar “Risks Related to Our Business and Industry” in SEC filings:

‘Our growth depends on our ability to secure contracts to develop and manage new correctional, detention and mental health facilities, the demand for which is outside our control …. [A]ny changes with respect to the decriminalization of drugs and controlled substances could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, sentenced and incarcerated, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. Similarly, reductions in crime rates could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities. Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.’”

Moreover, when you’re in the business of locking people up, there is high incentive to cut costs and maximize profits and little incentive to rehabilitate inmates and reduce future crime. As a result of cost-cutting measures, research suggests prisoners in private facilities are more likely to experience violence and inhumane conditions. In addition, private prisons tend to have high staff turnover due to low wages. While corrections officers and staff are making close to minimum wage, top executives at GEO and CCA receive over $3 million each in annual compensation.

Also of concern, as Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast points out, is the seldom mentioned “revolving door” between public and private corrections which the ACLU report highlights:

“Many in the private prison industry…once served in state corrections departments, and numerous state corrections officials formerly worked for private prison companies. In some cases, this revolving door between public corrections and private prisons may contribute to the ability of some companies to win contracts or to avoid sufficient scrutiny from the corrections departments charged with overseeing their operations.”

With high incentives to increase prison populations while cutting corrections costs and with little meaningful oversight due to the “revolving door,” the private prison industry is in a dangerously powerful position. In order to end mass incarceration, as the ACLU suggests, we must divest from private prisons and halt the expansion of “for-profit incarceration.”

To read the full ACLU report, click here.