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.
-Corrections Corporation of America 2005 Annual Report
It can only be good…with the focus on people that are illegal and also from Middle Eastern descent…In the U.S., there are over 900,000 undocumented individuals from Middle Eastern descent…That’s half of our entire [U.S.] prison population…The Federal business is the best business for us…and the events of September 11 [are] increasing that level of business.
-Chairmen of Cornell Companies (now part of The GEO Group) statement to shareholders following the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11/2011.
Beginning in the 1970’s, the United States began the most massive prison expansion process in history. In 1970, U.S. prisons and jails held roughly 300,000 prisoners; by 1990, the figure had grown to over 1 million. Today, around 2.3 million people are in state and federal prisons and jails, with over 7 million on some sort of supervision. Black communities have been disproportionately affected by the 40 years of this prison explosion. According to author of The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, there are more black men under correctional control today than there were slaves in 1850. In major urban areas like Washington D.C. a large majority of black men have been convicted of a felony. The story of massively increased incarceration in the United States is a story about institutional racism, but it is also a story of the private prison industry.
There are many industries that make money from prisons, but the private prison industry is one of the few industries founded solely to profit off imprisonment. Many private companies cater to the prison industry, providing auxiliary services like food, medical care, and other necessities for prisoners traditionally provided by the government, but giant corporations like Corrections Corporation of America and the The GEO Group, Inc.make their profits on imprisonment itself. According to a recent ACLU report, Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration, in 1980, private adult prisons did not exist in the U.S., but by 1990 there were 67 privately run facilities that caged roughly 7,000 individuals; by 2009, the number of people incarcerated in private prisons had grown to 129,000. Rivers Correctional Institution, a private prison run by GEO Group in North Carolina, currently incarcerates nearly 1,000 D.C. residents.
In addition to traditional incarceration, the private prison industry has gotten involved in immigration detention, with over 50% of people locked-up at immigration detention facilities in the U.S. incarcerated at privately run facilities. As mass incarceration and immigration detention have decimated families nationwide, the two largest private prison companies, GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), have grown with alarming speed: while not even in existence in 1980, in 2010 the two companies combined to earn nearly $3 billion, with the CEOs of each company making over $3 million each.
The concept of privatized prisons and detention centers raises numerous moral and political issues —individuals profiting directly off the loss of freedom of other human beings, with an incentive to ensure that as many human beings as possible are not free—but the private prison industry wreaks havoc in a very practical sense in two distinct ways: (1) they lobby for harsher criminal and immigration sanctions; and (2) they treat incarcerated men, women, and youth even worse than other prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers in the U.S.
GEO Group, CCA, and other private prison companies use their immense profits—accumulated by housing prisoners in inhumane conditions, providing minimal medical care, and paying non-unionized guards lower salaries than they receive at government-run facilities—to lobby for harsh criminal sanctions for nonviolent crimes in order to keep their prisons full and profitable. GEO Group and CCA recognize the threat that criminal justice reform presents to their revenue streams, and thus they have both lobbied heavily for harsher criminal justice and immigration policies.
Much of this lobbying is accomplished through an intimate relationship with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a membership organization that includes state legislators and corporations. According to a report in The Nation, “The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor“, ALEC has championed mandatory minimum sentencing legislation, “truth in sentencing” policies, and “three strikes” legislation. CCA and GEO Group have been profiting greatly off of an increase in immigrant detention that followed the 1996 passage of the federal Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (the Reform Act) and the even bigger detention boom after the September 11 attacks in 2001. Under the Reform Act, minor offenses like shoplifting became deportable offenses, creating a boom in the immigrant detention industry.
ALEC has been active as well in pressing for the kind of local anti-immigrant legislation that aids GEO Group and CCA. For example, Arizona’s notorious racial profiling law SB 1070—which sanctioned law enforcement officers demanding proof of immigration status during traffic stops if there was “reasonable suspicion” that the person entered the country illegally—was sponsored by then-state Sen. Russell Pearce, a longtime ALEC member. ALEC has encouraged the introduction of copycat legislation in other states.
In addition to trying to get more people sent to prison, private prison operators also treat inmates worse while they are incarcerated. According to the ACLU, several studies suggest prisoners held in private facilities face heightened levels of violence and safety threats, including rape and sexual assault at the hands of guards. The two explanations for this phenomenon put forward by the ACLU are both related to the nature of for-profit prisons: First, private prisons and jails pay their employees less and have higher turnovers rates, which means guards can receive insufficient training or screening; and second, while state-run facilities may have incentives to reduce recidivism, private prison corporations have the opposite economic incentive.
For example, at a private juvenile detention facility in Tellulah, Louisiana that closed down in the early 2000s, children were kept in solitary confinement for extended periods of time, deprived adequate food and clothing, and pitted against each other in “gladiator games” for the amusement of racist, untrained guards. This kind of maltreatment often goes unnoticed by policy makers because lobbyists from the for-profit prison industry make sure to hide the transgressions. The business of the for-profit prison industry that advocates for profits in the form of increased recidivism and low-cost facilities inevitably leads to situations like Tellulah.
We protest the private prison industry because we oppose the inhumane treatment of our brothers and sisters detained in juvenile facilities, prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers nationwide. We protest the private prison industry because we are opposed to mass incarceration. We protest the private prison industry because we are opposed to the life-long restrictions placed on the millions of people who have been convicted of criminal behavior in this country. We protest private prisons because they are emblems of a racist, backwards, and unjust criminal justice system.