Private Prison Companies Want You Locked Up
New report highlights political strategies of companies working to make money through harsh policies and longer sentences
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Over the past 15 years, the number of people held in all prisons in the United States has increased by 49.6 percent, while private prison populations have increased by 353.7 percent, according to recent federal statistics. Meanwhile, in 2010 alone, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, the two largest private prison companies, had combined revenues of $2.9 billion. According to a report released today by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), not only have private prison companies benefitted from this increased incarceration, but they have helped fuel it.
Gaming the System: How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies Promote Ineffective Incarceration Policies, examines how private prison companies are able to wield influence over legislators and criminal justice policy, ultimately resulting in harsher criminal justice policies and the incarceration of more people. The report notes a “triangle of influence” built on campaign contributions, lobbying and relationships with current and former elected and appointed officials. Through this strategy, private prison companies have gained access to local, state, and federal policymakers and have back-channel influence to pass legislation that puts more people behind bars, adds to private prison populations and generates tremendous profits at U.S. taxpayers’ expense.
“For-profit companies exercise their political influence to protect their market share, which in the case of corporations like GEO Group and CCA primarily means the number of people locked up behind bars,” said Tracy Velázquez, executive director of JPI. “We need to take a hard look at what the cost of this influence is, both to taxpayers and to the community as a whole, in terms of the policies being lobbied for and the outcomes for people put in private prisons. That their lobbying and political contributions is funded by taxpayers, through their profits on government contracts, makes it all the more important that people understand the role of private prisons in our political system.”
Paul Ashton, principle author of Gaming the System, noted, “This report is built on concrete examples of the political strategies of private prison companies. From noting campaign donations, $835,514 to federal candidates and $6,092,331 to state-level candidates since 2000, to the proposed plan from Ohio Governor John Kasich to privatize five Ohio prisons followed by the appointment of a former CCA employee to run the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, Gaming the System shows that private prison companies’ interests lie in promoting their business through maintaining political relationships rather than saving taxpayer dollars and effectively ensuring public safety.”
Other organizations have also investigated the private prison industry and have their own serious concerns about their political influence. “In the South and Southwest, the private prison industry has consistently targeted poor communities,” said Bob Libal the Texas Campaigns Coordinator for Grassroots Leadership. “We believe that it’s important to fight, particularly in these communities, to end for-profit incarceration and reduce reliance on criminalization and detention, and ultimately build lasting movements for social justice. This important report helps shed light onto this particularly troubling industry.”
Shakyra Diaz, policy director of ACLU of Ohio added, “Research has shown that private prisons do not save taxpayer dollars and can in fact cost taxpayers more than public prisons. Additionally, privatizing prisons may undermine cost effective sentencing reforms and increase recidivism rates. Despite these well-documented concerns, private prison companies continue to promote policies that put money in their pockets and people behind bars.”
If states and the federal government are interested in providing cost-effective, proven public safety strategies, investments in private prison companies will not help achieve that goal. Gaming the System includes a number of recommendations for criminal justice policies that are cost-effective and will improve public safety:
- States and the federal government should look for real solutions to the problem of growing jail and prison populations. A number of states are already utilizing innovative strategies for reducing the number of people behind bars in their state. Reducing the number of people entering the justice system, and the amount of time that they spend there, can lower prison populations, making private, for-profit prisons unnecessary, and improving public safety and the lives of individuals.
- Invest in front-end treatment and services in the community, whether private or public. Research shows that education, employment, drug treatment, health care, and the availability of affordable housing coincide with better outcomes for all people, whether involved in the criminal justice system or not. Jurisdictions that spend more money on these services are likely to experience lower crime rates and lower incarceration rates. An increase in spending on education, employment and other services not only would improve public safety, but also would enhance and enrich communities and individual life outcomes.
- Additional research is needed to effectively evaluate the cost and recidivism reduction claims of the private prison industry. With conflicting research on both the cost savings and recidivism reduction of private prisons, additional research is needed to determine the accuracy of such claims. Moreover, a clearer dialogue surrounding the difficulties of comparative research between private and public facilities would also be beneficial in providing a better understanding of the implications of prison privatization.
“Private prison companies have been very successful in their effort to promote harsher sentencing policies and the privatization of correctional systems, and when they win, we all lose,” added Velázquez. “Taxpayers lose when their money is used to generate profits for shareholders and to promote policies that increase incarceration; communities lose when policies proven to be ineffective for public safety are pushed through state legislatures, and people involved in the criminal justice system lose when they are locked up in underfunded and sometimes unsafe facilities.”
To read Gaming the System CLICK HERE. For additional information, please contact Zerline Hughes at (202) 558-7974 x308 or [email protected]. For more JPI reports on the criminal justice system, please visit our website at www.justicepolicy.org.
The Justice Policy Institute, based in Washington, DC, is working to reduce the use of incarceration and the justice system and promote policies that improve the well-being of all people and communities. For more information, please visit www.justicepolicy.org.
*NOTE: The National Institute on Money and State Politics is constantly updating their figures. Numbers cited in the report is current as of May 3, 2011. For the latest data, please visit their website.