Saturday 6 August 2011

The US Prisons Profit System

At yearend 2010, America's prison population topped 2.4 million, including federal and state facilities, local jails, Indian, juvenile, and military ones, US territories, and numbers held by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

In addition, over seven million more are under correctional supervision, and over 13 million pass through US prisons and jails annually. About 70% are for nonviolent offenses. Nearly half of those are drug-related. In 1980, 40,000 drug offenders were imprisoned. It's now over 500,000, victimized by unfair "war on drugs" laws.

Since 1970, America's prison population grew eightfold. It hasn't been for more crime. It's because of:

-- racism;

-- police state toughness;

-- judicial unfairness;
-- political persecution;

-- get tough on crime policies;

-- three strikes and you're out;

-- truth-in-sentencing;

-- mandatory minimums;

-- a guilty unless proved innocent mentality; and

-- being undocumented.

Most vulnerable are poor Blacks, Latinos, and Native Indians (people of color) for America's insatiable prison-industrial complex appetite, commoditizing human beings for profit in both public and privately run prisons.

Corrections says:

-- America's prison population is by far the world's largest;

-- one-fourth of Black men are in prison, on parole or probation;

-- 10% of them lost their right to vote;

-- unprecedented numbers of children are incarcerated, many into adulthood;

-- Native Americans have the highest percent of their population imprisoned;

-- Latinos and women are the fastest growing prison populations;

-- rural communities are being force-fed prisons to stimulate economic growth; and

-- incarceration in America is a growth industry - an alleged solution to high unemployment, crumbled schools, societal neglect, low wages, and an eroding social contract, trafficking human beings for profit in all penal facilities because private suppliers service them.

They include a growing private gulag, prisons for profit with nearly a score of corporations running dozens of facilities with tens of thousands of prisoners. In fact, privatized prisons are expected to increase sharply over the next decade, given America's addiction to incarcerate and let corporate prisons do more.

Outlawed a century ago, they're back and booming, a solution to budget-strapped states. Today, nearly 10% of US prisons and jails are private, dominated by two major firms - Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut).

They also play a growing role in warehousing undocumented immigrants and resident aliens, including in locations outside America. More on that below.

On June 22, Justice Policy Institute writer Paul Ashton headlined, "Gaming the System: How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies Promote Ineffective Incarceration Policies," saying:

In the past decade, they've "worked create markets for their product," using financial muscle to buy political influence "to promote policies that lead to higher rates of incarceration" three ways:

-- lobbying;

-- campaign contributions; and

-- relationships with current and former elected and appointed officials.

As a result, federal, state and local legislation passed to incarcerate more people, including in private prisons. The more beds filled, the greater the profits at the expense of social justice. Moreover, research shows corporate facilities cost more, undermine reforms, and compromise public safety by increasing recidivism rates. Nonetheless, gaming the system pays.

Beginning in the 1980s, rapid prison population growth attracted private investment. As a result, states began selling correctional facilities to private operators, then contracting with them to warehouse prisoners. Many, however, discovered the higher cost. As a result, states like California, Texas, Oklahoma, Idaho and Nevada reduced or ended relationships with private operators. Nonetheless, prisons for profit keep growing.

Notably by the late 1990s, privately run prisons verged on bankruptcy because of speculative over-building, highly publicized scandals, lawsuits, and fines over human rights violations. However, thanks to growing immigrant detentions since 2003, profits are better than ever.

Overall, nearly 200,000 inmates today fill private prisons compared to 36,500 in 1995 and 87,000 in 2000. As a result, companies like CCA and GEO manage 16% of federal prisons and nearly 7% of state ones. Since 2000, they grew their federal market share by over 120% (because of immigration detentions) and state percentage by about one-third.

According to CCA's 2010 Annual Report:

"The demand for our facilities and services could (only) 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."

In fact, America's criminal justice system is tougher than ever on crime, including against thousands of innocent victims. As a result, business for private operators is booming, either through management contracts or housing inmates in privately owned facilities.

Companies usually charge a daily rate per prisoner to cover investment, operating costs and make a profit. Varying greatly by facility, population, and security level, it covers salaries, food services, "programatic costs," and partial medical care besides other services. Minimizing costs for maximum gain is top priority as in all profit-making enterprises.

In 1984, Hamilton County, TN and Bay County, FL were the first local governments in modern times to contract with private operators. Promising comparable services at lower costs, federal, state and local governments increasingly use them to finance, design, construct, manage, and staff prisons, jails, and other correctional facilities.

Despite no evidence showing business operates better than government, prisons for profit grew at a faster rate than incarceration over the past 15 years. As a result, companies like CCA and GEO Group have seen explosive growth, benefitting greatly by filling more beds.

Brutal conditions, dangers, and abuses are commonplace in all prisons. Privately run ones, however, are especially scandalous and extreme.

In March, Human Rights Advocates (HRA) published "The Human Rights Implications of Prison Privatization Report to the 16th Session of the Human Rights Council."

It explained widespread violations, including the right to life, to be treated with humanity and dignity, proper food and medical care, and right to family unity - in America, Britain and Australia because these countries have the largest privatized systems. They've "also produced egregious human rights violations."

Even Israel recognizes it. In 2004, after the Knesset passed an amendment to allow private facilities, a firestorm erupted. As a result, the High Court of Justice ruled in 2009 that for-profit prisons violate human rights and dignities by giving companies invasive authority over inmates.

It also ruled that enforcing criminal law is one of the state's fundamental powers, compromised if placed in private hands. Moreover, it expressed concerns that bottom line priorities would compromise fundamental human rights. America has yet to agree.

Compared to government run prisons, private ones pay lower wages and benefits, use poorly trained staff, and experience higher turnover. Moreover, a 2008 audit reported that GEO hired 100 guards without performing criminal background checks. As a result, prisoner rights are violated when "poorly trained guards control their environment."

Article 9(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) protects the right to life. Yet it's violated in prisons worldwide, often because of unsafe conditions and poorly trained staff. For example, a Texas run GEO facility was found negligent for causing an inmate's death.

While guards watched, he was beaten to death by two inmates. Afterwards, they destroyed incriminating evidence. Other examples involve guard abuse, including prisoners savaged by dogs, shocked with cattle prods, burned with toxic chemicals, harmed by stun guns, and otherwise illegally abused.

Rape and other sexual abuse are also major problems because of the power imbalance between inmates and guards, exacerbated when they're poorly trained.

Moreover, juvenile inmates are vulnerable. One female youth in a GEO Texas facility reported being raped by prison guards nearly every night. She and others abused sued and won. Two guards pled guilty to criminal sexual assault charges. Nonetheless, the problem remains widespread.

GEO Walnut Grove Correctional Facility is currently under Justice Department investigation for denying its youth inmates medical care and mental health treatment.

A CCA Eloy, AR prisoner died while shackled to bed after doctors didn't take his medical complaints seriously. Florida inmates sued a CCA facility, alleging guards urinated and defecated on food before serving it.

About 10,300 California CCA prisoners are housed in other states, separating them from families. As a result, prisoner rehabilitation is impeded. In America, however, inmates in privately run federal prisoners can't sue authorities for civil rights violations (just individuals) unlike others in publicly run facilities.

As a result, corporations are largely insulated from liability, perpetuating human rights violations. They also have no reason to rehabilitate because recidivists increase profits. They're paid either on a per diem basis per inmate or through construction contracts. Either way, rehabilitation is disincentivized as repeat offenders fill beds.

ICCPR's Article 9(1) ensures the right to liberty and protects against arbitrary arrest and detention. Bottom line priorities discourage them. For example, in 2009, two Pennsylvania judges pled guilty to bribery schemes for taking payments from two privately run youth detention centers in exchange for committing defendants there. As a result, thousands of victims got disproportionately harsh sentences, many innocent or guilty only of minor offenses, warranting reprimands at most.

Immigrant detentions are especially burgeoning, despite the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention saying detaining them should only be a last resort. However, private prison lobbying increased incarcerations greatly.

On March 17, a Graeme Wood Business Week feature headlined, "A Boom Behind Bars," saying:

"Private jail operators like (CCA) are making millions off the crackdown on illegal aliens."

The numbers are stunning. In 2005, Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained about 240,000 immigrants. By 2010, it was nearly 400,000 and rising annually.

Moreover, according to Detention Watch Network, private prison operators in 2009 warehoused around half of all aliens. Currently, it's likely higher as industry lobbying assures a bigger piece of the incarcerated immigrant population pie.

In 2010, Arizona's Senate Bill 1070 mandates detentions for anyone unable to prove they're here legally. CCA is a prominent American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) member. In December 2009, it lobbied ALEC to propose migrant incarcerations. Its proposed recommendations were nearly identical to Senate Bill 1070 language.

Most state backers got prison industry campaign contributions. Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the law, employs two former CCA lobbyists as top aides. Incestuous industry/government ties increase immigrant detentions. For example, GEO's CEO gave over $100,000 to George Bush. In return, the company got a lucrative 2003 contract to run Guantanamo's gulag to abuse prisoners there like in America.

Last September, Obama appointed Stacia Hylton as new US Marshals Service (USMS) director, another example of industry/government incest. Her resume includes six years as Justice Department Federal Detention trustee, where she awarded nearly $88 million in contracts to GEO. Afterwards, she was a corporate GEO/CCA consultant.

USMS serves under the Justice Department, responsible for apprehending fugitives, transporting federal prisoners, and providing protection for federal witnesses, among other duties. Her close ties to private prison corporations assure favoring their continued expansion and bottom line priorities over responsibly run penal institutions.

When for-profit firms run them, inmates and their families are harmed. Costs spiral. Communities are impacted. So are taxpayers, and public safety when compromised by higher recidivism rates.

On average, it costs about $78 a day per prisoner (more in private prisons) or as much per year for tuition and fees as at private US colleges and universities. As a result, policies that increase incarceration time or promote recidivism have considerable fiscal impact, especially when budget-strapped states and Washington grapple with controlling costs.

For example, one study found that a decade after California enacted its 1994 "three strikes" law, its incarceration budget cost was $10.4 billion higher, including $6.2 billion extra for longer terms for nonviolent offenses, many warranting little or no prison time.

Moreover, public safety wasn't served. Criminologists say incarceration impacts it minimally, and time in prison increases recidivism, in both public and for-profit prisons.

Private or government run facilities can make a difference if public ones stress policies not now in force, including shorter sentences, none for minor offenses, rehabilitation, and fewer people incarcerated.

In contrast, private prison companies need bodies to grow. The more beds filled, the more revenue, profit and happy shareholders at the expense of higher costs, broken families, affected communities, and no improvement in public safety to provide it.

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at

Also visit his blog site at and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.

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