Thursday, September 29, 2011

Making Money off of Putting People in Prison

By Paul Ashton

Putting people behind bars is a big money-maker. In 2010 alone, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group (GEO), the two largest private prison companies in the U.S., raked in over $2.9 billion dollars in revenue. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of people in state and federal private prisons in the U.S. totaled 129,336 in 2009, and CCA and GEO’s revenue was $2.77 billion. Talk about hitting the jackpot! The real question here is: should we make incarcerating people a business incentive? No.

What has bringing the private sector into corrections brought to the criminal justice system in the U.S.? To put it simply, prison privatization has brought nothing but headaches. Private prison companies started landing their first contracts in 1984; one would think that after nearly three decades of private prison contracts, failed attempts at achieving government cost savings and suffering communities, that the public and policymakers would be able to unveil the smokescreen that this business has put on. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

In our June report, Gaming the System, I wrote about the political strategies these private prison companies use to influence incarceration in the U.S. And that is what they have been most successful at since their inception: building a brand of talking points and political connections, not being innovators committed to providing the best product or working to reduce the justice system. Really, why should they, how would they make billions in revenue if policymakers, states, and the federal government took interest in reducing justice system involvement for the betterment of society?

This blog highlights some updated numbers to those featured in Gaming the System. The databases ( and that track campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures are updated quite frequently, and what we have seen with the recent updates is that the number of contributions and spending by private prison companies to garner influence has increased. It is important for advocates, taxpayers, community members, and policymakers to understand the level of influence private prison companies are attempting – and at times successful at attaining. They are spending more and more to build relationships with policymakers and hiring lobbyists to regurgitate their talking points to ensure that they are receiving increased contracts and more people are ending up in their prisons.

For instance:
• Since 2000, private prison companies have contributed over $7.2 million to state candidates and political parties.
• Between the 2002 and 2012 election cycles, CCA and GEO’s Political Action Committees (PACs) have doled out $1,212,889 and $1,010,002 respectively to federal parties, candidates and committees.
• Since 2000, private prison companies (CCA, GEO and Cornell Corrections) have given $867,010 –to federal candidates alone.
• Since 2000, private prison companies (CCA, GEO and Cornell Corrections) have spent over $21 million on federal lobbying efforts with the majority, over $17 million being spent by CCA alone.

Private prison companies have been strategic and successful at expanding their business at the expense of communities, taxpayers, and the people in their prisons. Gaming the System highlights some of the losers of this political game. So what’s the bottom line? In order for companies like CCA and GEO to be successful they need you and your family, friends and neighbors in their prison beds.

With CCA recently purchasing a prison in Ohio, Florida putting up 29 facilities for contract bidding, and Arizona looking to add an additional 5,000 prison beds, it appears that private prison companies are winning this political game. It is important for advocates, community members, and policymakers to take a critical look at this industry and ask: is it really in the best interest of society to lock people up for money? Instead of the private prison companies being strategic and successful, it is up to us to ensure that we are working to improve society by investing in communities and programs that reduce the need and use of the criminal justice system.

Paul Ashton is JPI's Research Assistant.

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