In 1990, there were 7,771 prisoners held in private prison facilities in the US. By 2009, that number had jumped to 129,336, a 1664 percent increase. Along the way, private prisons became a multi-billion dollar industry. This growth was fueled, in part, by the “pitch” that privatizing prisons would save tax dollars. As the ACLU documented in its new report, Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration, the private prison industry’s narrative is in need of serious revision.
Last spring, the myth of cost savings through prison privatization was shot down by the head of Texas prisons, Brad Livingston, who testified before the House Corrections Committee that non-salary operating costs of public and private facilities are almost identical (Texas House Committee on Corrections, 4/13/11, at 1:31:08). The ACLU report also found that private prisons may fail to save tax payer money, and furthermore, in order to maximize profits, they are strongly incentivized to cut corners which can result in poorly trained employees, and affect the wellbeing of prisoners.
So, if private prisons aren’t cheaper, aren’t more efficient, and aren’t run in a better manner why do we have them? A major reason, as the report documented, is that beginning in the 1990s the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that brings together state legislators and corporations to discuss public policy and draft model legislation, began to push legislation that would result in mass incarceration and promote private prisons. Some of this legislation, such as “truth in sentencing” and “three strikes” laws may sound familiar. During this time, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the leading private prison company, played a lead role on the ALEC task force developing some of this legislation. In addition to ALEC, the private prison industry employs an army of lobbyists throughout the country. CCA and The GEO Group, Inc., the two largest private prison corporations, hired 271 lobbyists in over 32 states between 2003-2011. Between 1999 and 2009, CCA alone spent over $18 million on lobbying, just at the federal level.
Mass incarceration is the natural by-product of a powerful industry whose bottom line requires incarcerating as many people as possible, regardless of the impact. And, the private prison companies don’t try to hide their goals. For example, this is what GEO stated in its filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) (The report shows that CCA had a similar statement in its SEC filing):
“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.”
This model is broken because it is based on incarceration instead of crime prevention. For-profit private prisons are not the answer to making our streets safer and our society more productive. Instead, we must focus on creating a system that is less is harmful to our pocketbooks, protects our safety, and respects basic human dignity. Read the full ACLU report here.