How the private prison industry is corrupting our democracy and promoting mass incarceration
New report from:
November 15, 2011
Many Americans were shocked to learn that two Pennsylvania judges accepted “cash-for-kids,” kickbacks from for-profit juvenile detention companies in exchange for locking up young people for very minor offenses. Yet the reality is that private prison lobbyists regularly buy influence with state and federal officials, not only to win lucrative contracts, but also to change or preserve policies that increase the number of people behind bars. Private companies have made huge profits off the mass incarceration of non-violent drug offenders, and are now turning their attention to increasing the detention of Latino immigrants—the newest profit center for the prison industrial complex. Ultimately there is no way to reverse the costly trend toward mass incarceration without reducing the influence of these companies and their money in our democracy.
The United States imprisons more people than in any other nation in the world, by far. While the U.S. represents less than five percent of the world’s population, we hold almost a quarter of the world’s prison population.1 Researchers may point to several factors for this trend, but it has become increasingly apparent that a driving force behind our imprisonment practices is the profit motive of private prison companies and the political influence these companies exert to create and expand their business opportunities. Two recent studies—one by the Justice Policy Institute in June and one by the American Civil Liberties Union in November—reveal the pervasive influence of the industry on criminal justice policy in the United States.
Building on analysis of the most recent data on private prison lobbying and campaign contributions, as well as previous research and news accounts, this paper connects the dots between rising incarceration rates, increased detention of immigrants, growing private prison revenue, increased spending on political campaigns and lobbying, and privileged access to policymakers.
In addition, through summaries of recent cases, we highlight examples of these unholy alliances in different states. The overview focuses on the two companies operating the majority of private prisons in the U.S. today (Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group), but the cases will also include smaller companies with interests in particular states.
Summary of key findings
- While the overall prison population has grown dramatically over the last two decades, the growth of inmates being detained in private, for-profit prisons has skyrocketed. Between 1990 and 2009, the total number of inmates in federal and state prisons doubled, while private prisons saw its business explode—the private prison population in 2009 was 17 times larger than 2 decades earlier.
- The more people behind bars, and the longer they stay there, the more money that private, for-profit prison companies make. Over the last decade, the two largest for-profit prison companies (Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group) saw their annual revenue double as a result of the spike in incarcerations, making them both billion-dollar companies.
- The explosion in the number of inmates and corresponding growth in revenue for private prisons is no accident. It has been part of an intentional effort by the private prison industry to shape public policy to push more people into prison and keep them there longer. The industry has achieved this through the classic three-pronged strategy of contributing to political campaigns, lobbying, and gaining access to policymakers through close relationships.
- Through involvement in the leadership of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), private prison companies have played a key role in lobbying for and passing harsher sentencing for non-violent offenses including three-strike laws, mandatory sentencing, and truth-in-sentencing. They are also behind the recent spate of anti-immigrant state laws that are putting more and more immigrants behind bars—the new profit center for the prison industrial complex.
- Private prison companies employ legions of lobbyists to push for policies that support their bottom line. Since 2001, CCA, GEO Group and Cornell Companies have spent over $22 million lobbying Congress.2 Recent lobbying by CCA and GEO Group includes efforts to increase funding to Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE). Since 2003, CCA has employed 204 of lobbyists in 32 states, and GEO Group has employed by 79 lobbyists in 17 states.3
- Private prison companies also influence policymaking by strategically supporting political campaigns. At the federal level, the political action committees and executives of private prison companies have given at least $3.3 million to political parties, candidates, and their political action committees since 2001. The private prison industry has given more than $7.3 million to state candidates and political parties since 2001, including $1.9 million in 2010, the highest amount in the past decade.
We’re all losing as a result of allowing private prisons to profit off of mass incarceration. More and more families are being torn apart, communities are seeing an entire generation put behind bars, youth are having their futures undermined, and taxpayers are seeing their hard-earned dollars go towards subsidizing private prisons’ profit margin. An essential first step towards ending mass incarceration is to reduce the influence of these private prison companies and their money in our democracy.
1 Adam Liptak, “U.S. prison population dwarfs that of other nations,” The New York Times, April 23, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/world/americas/23iht-23prison.12253738.html?pagewanted=all
2 All information on federal lobbying and campaign contributions is based on data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics, accessed either through its website OpenSecrets.org or through the Sunlight Foundation site at TransparencyData.com.
3 All information on state lobbying and campaign contributions is based on data provided by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, accessed through their site FollowtheMoney.org or through the Sunlight Foundation site at TransparencyData.com.