Mr. Obama, Tear Down the Private Profit Prisons

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jail cell inside“…men who so uneasily tolerate superiors patiently suffer a master, and show themselves proud and servile at the same time.” –Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

In 2007, a teenager in a depressed county of Northeastern Pennsylvania, recently bereft of its industrial and coal mining jobs, was sentenced to 3 months in juvenile detention.  Her crime was spoofing her principal.  Judge Michael T. Conahan found her guilty of harassment.

The epilogue to this Kafkaesque discharge of justice is that Conahan and a colleague pleaded guilty to receiving kickbacks of $2.6 million over 5 years from two private juvenile detention centers.  The private child prisons bribed judges to dole out harsher sentences and send more children to prison.  As many as 5,000 children may have been unjustly sentenced during the judges’ tenures as sock puppets for the private prison industry.  As always, corporations are people with pockets, but not people with responsibilities.  Conahan caught a 17-year sentence for receiving the bribes, but no one has been charged for offering them.

The case of Luzerne County, PA was patently illegal, but the same phenomenon is going on around the country under more legal-ish, though no less inhumane, auspices.  The horrendous principle of too big to fail that conquered the banking industry and helped Wall Street thrive as it smashed America’s piggy banks is now overtaking the prison industry.  The private prison industry could be described as too-big jails preying on folks too little to bail.  The same Citizens United regime of legalized corruption is leading to the same policy that profit is privatized and costs are socialized.  The private prison industry is swiftly conquering the criminal justice system.  And the public is paying the bill for a few owners to get big and rich on throwing a growing percentage of the public behind bars.

There are many dimensions to this political and economic assault on justice and liberty.  The private prison industry’s influence in government is growing rapidly.  It uses this influence to create the legal paradigm and business environment to build a massive base of captive labor.  This is screwing with our democratic system and our economy.  It is causing an explosion in the US prison population, in spite of an overall decline in violent crime.  The industry builds its labor base by focusing on three targets.  The industry encourages harsh laws and punishments for nonviolent drug violations and pushes the ongoing revenue black hole of the war on drugs.  The private prison industry also targets immigrants for prosecution and imprisonment.  Students, especially poor and minority students, are also targeted for incarceration.  This adds up to a socio-economic nightmare that demands immediate action.

lobbyist congress cartoonGoing through the Lobby

There are two behemoth corporations in the private prison industry: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group.  GEO Group bought out the third largest prison corporation at the time, Cornell Companies, in August, 2010.  CCA and GEO Group have massive lobbying operations.  The Justice Policy Institute published an ambitiously thorough report in 2011 detailing the two corporations’ political strategy.  Over the last ten years, the industry has spent between $1.5 and $3.5 million annually on federal lobbying.  Nationwide, state-level lobbying is almost certainly much higher.  Reporting laws vary by state, but in Florida alone, in the first 3 months of 2011, industry lobbying was reported at well over $200,000.  Shortly thereafter, Florida passed a bill requiring the privatization of all prisons in South Florida, holding around 20,000 inmates, due to what must surely be just a wacky coincidence.  As the rate of lobbying increases, so too does the population of prisoners in private for-profit prisons.  As you can see, their profits grow steadily every year:

profits geo group

Campaign contributions are an even bigger part of their strategy for influence.  In the last ten years, the industry and its PACs have spent over $800,000 on federal campaign contributions and around $6 million on state-level contributions.  Around half went to individual campaigns and half went to party committees.  Around 59% went to Republicans, 31% to Democrats and 9% to ballot initiatives.  Of the donations, 75% went to winning campaigns.  This indicates that the industry certainly considers Republicans a better investment, but is also either bandwagoning or possibly providing decisive support, especially in state elections.

The prison industry has worked together with the corporate lobbying monstrosity the American Legislative Exchange Council.  ALEC, which boasts that its mission is to give big business “a VOICE and a VOTE,” is responsible for some of the toughest, most regressive laws on the books, including three strikes laws, which can lead to mandatory life sentences for theft of fairly innocuous items like bicycles, and the Truth in Sentencing Act, which coerces states to see to it that inmates serve out 85% of their sentences or lose federal funding.  This, in turn, ensures that the prison industry squeezes every drop of juicy profit out of every inmate.

The ALEC/prison industry alliance also has Scott Walker’s claw-prints on it.  As a state rep, Walker introduced Truth in Sentencing in Wisconsin in 1997.  The bill passed but was repealed in 2001, once the state realized how much it was costing them.  As governor, Walker reintroduced the law in 2009.  It passed and he signed it, unplugging the revenue drain, while he was blaming the state’s budget shortfalls on teachers.

ALEC also pushed SB 1070, the notorious “show me your papers” bill in Arizona, which made the Natasha and Boris duo of Jan Brewer and Sheriff Arpaio infamous and alerted the nation to the fact that Arizona is one strap short of a straightjacket.  The bill allows police to assume that anyone who looks foreign is a criminal.  It thereby creates a trough of revenue for the prison corporations to oink at.

GEO Group NYSEA Lock Box

In 2011, CCA generated $1.729 billion in revenue and GEO Group made $1.613 billion.  In their own advertising material GEO Group says:

GEO is the first fully-integrated equity real estate investment trust specializing in the design, development, financing, and operation of correctional, detention, and community reentry facilities worldwide.

Well, look at that beautiful bouquet of bullshit.  Seriously, even Shakespeare’s lecherous buffoon Falstaff doesn’t use as many euphemisms courting a bar wench as GEO Group uses describing itself to investors.  GEO Group and CCA own prisons, the prisoners locked up in them, and the prisoners’ labor.  All of which generate profit.  Throughout their investment advertisement materials, the prison corporations refer to “beds.”  At one level, the prison corporations function like a hotel chain.  Except it’s like the Hotel California: you can never leave.  On another level, they function like sweatshops.

Through ALEC, the prison industry has managed to exploit a loophole that regulated the interstate sale of prison-produced goods.  The regulation forced prisons to pay their prisoners a regular wage, both to prevent slave-like labor conditions and to prevent prisons from undercutting companies that employ people who go home at night.  The private prison industry set up private third party distributors to sell the prisoners’ products out of state.  The prisons essentially launder the prisoners’ labor output.  One such distributor boasts about its amazing low prices on various agricultural, glass and plastics products.

But that’s to be expected when there’s zero overhead.  Working while in a private prison is “voluntary” but prisoners who refuse to work are subject to punishment, including solitary confinement.  For their labor, prisons pay the prisoners $1 to $3 a day.  And they charge them as much as $5 a minute to make a phone call, to their lawyers or loved ones.  For many of the prisoners their crime was coming to the US to do menial labor for a little more money.  And their punishment is to do tons of menial labor for no money.  This is a sort of blitzkrieg of the class war: the extremely wealthy are colonizing the extremely poor to force them to do work for them for free.

This free labor has helped the industry explode, but it was a very near thing.  In 2000, CCA was approaching bankruptcy, brought on by a bevy of lawsuits charging that the prisoners were subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment.  One of the most egregious problems was widespread indifference to prisoners’ medical conditions.  Reports have documented prisoners unable to receive treatment for cancer, diabetes, AIDS, and appendicitis.  For many people, getting caught on the wrong side of the Rio Grande or with a baggie of marijuana amounted to a slow, excruciating death sentence.

According to NPR, a prison in Mississippi run by GEO Group was rife with horrendous conditions, including:

  • Prison staff had sex with incarcerated youth, which investigators called “among the worst that we’ve seen in any facility anywhere in the nation.”
  • Poorly trained guards brutally beat youth and used excessive pepper spray as a first response.
  • The prison showed “deliberate indifference” to prisoners possessing homemade knives, which were used in gang fights and inmate rapes.

In spite of its legal challenges surrounding the horrific conditions, after 9/11, the industry rebounded in a big way, with the intervention of federal contracts.  According to a report, “as smoke was still rising over lower Manhattan,” a CCA executive told investors  that there would be a greater emphasis on punitive immigration policies and detention.  He said that 9/11 would be “a positive for our business.”  The post-9/11 business boom for the private prison industry also coincided with a huge spike in lobbying and campaign contributions during the Bush years.

lobbying prisons bush yearscampaign contributions prisons bush yearsAs you can see, the private prison industry escaped insolvency from its prisoner abuse by aggressive use of our system’s legalized corruption and by profiting mightily off Bush-era paranoia.  The growth of the private prison industry has garnered the attention of major Wall Street firms.  GEO Group has received major investment from Wells Fargo.  This has furthered enabled the industry to expand its footprint in the criminal justice system, taking on more “beds” and more free labor.

lady-justiceTipping the Scales

The private prison industry is seriously messing with society in a number of ways.  The prison industry has made it clear to investors that they will oppose any effort to decriminalize any nonviolent crime such as illegal immigration and drug use.  They will oppose any effort to reduce arrest, prosecutions, convictions, sentencing and incarceration for nonviolent crime.  They will oppose any effort to reduce crime by means other than incarceration.  The private prison industry supports any effort to expand definitions of criminality and to impose ever harsher sentences.

In spite of all the profit that the private prisons rake in, they are not saving taxpayers any money.  In fact, they are a revenue sinkhole for the country.  Because of ALEC’s Truth in Sentencing Act, private jails are overflowing with inmates who each cost taxpayers an average of $166 a day, or $23,876 a year in 2005.  The US spent $74 billion on detention and corrections in 2007, and it’s certainly much higher even a few years later.  As we know, a few billion of that tax money went into corporate coffers.  And they’re definitely not paying it forward.  In 2002, the IRS sued CCA following an audit that discovered that it was exploiting tax loopholes to avoid paying federal taxes.  You, Mr. or Ms. Taxpayer, are paying to make a few corporate CEOs who don’t like to pay taxes mega-rich by keeping nonviolent human beings in cages.

Apart from paying the industry in taxes, you are also paying them in jobs.  The virtually free labor has helped the prisons to out-compete small businesses that rely on service contracts in agriculture and manufacturing.  The private prison industry is a dead weight chained to the job market’s ankle as it treads water.  This constitutes a double jeopardy for you, Mr. or Ms. Taxpayer.  You pay for CCA’s and GEO Group’s executive’s luxurious and influential lifestyles with your taxes and you pay them in the form of lower wages and fewer jobs as they drive down the bottom of the economy.

Prisoner_population_rate_world_mapIncarceration Rape, er, Rate

The Atlantic reports that Mark Mauer, author of The Race to Incarcerate, says,

“No other society in human history has ever imprisoned so many of its own citizens for the purpose of crime control.”

We’re number one!  We’re number one!  USA!  USA!

The US has the most prisoners total and per capita of any country in the world.  The US is home to 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s imprisoned population.  Though China has five times our population, the US has more prisoners even than the notorious police state of the People’s Republic.  Even Vladimir Putin has fewer enemies of the state than America.  It’s good to know we’re still one step ahead of the Russians.

jail rate us vs worldAnd look!  We have twice as many prisoners as South Africa, only 20 years removed from Apartheid.  We look even more unique when compared to the rest of the OECD, the organization of 34 of the most democratic and economically developed countries in the world.

us jail rate vs oecdWe incarcerate roughly 7 times the average of our sister countries.  Because: profit.  The US is the only Western country where people can receive lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent or victimless crimes like writing bad checks or using drugs.  As the New York Times notes,

“Far from serving as a model for the world, contemporary America is viewed with horror,” James Whitman, a specialist in comparative law at Yale, wrote last year in Social Research. “Certainly there are no European governments sending delegations to learn from us about how to manage prisons.”

As of 2008 and 2009, around 2.3 million Americans, or more than 1% of all American adults, were in some sort of correctional facility, whether a state or federal prison or a local jail.  A further 2%, over 4 million, were on probation or on parole.  Of these, around 70% were Black or Hispanic, vastly disproportionate to their share of the population.  Additionally, around 70,000 children were in detention.  Of this locked up population, in 2010, over 128,000 were held in private prisons.  The private prison population increased by 32% between 2002 and 2009.

It hasn’t always been this way.  As with most of today’s socioeconomic ills, the problem can be traced to around 1980 and the beginning of the Reagan era.  Since 1980, the US incarceration rate has spiked 790%.  Reagan launched wars on crime and drugs, which caused an ongoing explosion in the incarceration rate in America.

us jail rate timelineThe number of federal prisoners held throughout the country held more or less constant as a function of population from World War II until Reagan.

federal prisoner timeline mapsAt the state level, incarceration is skewed more heavily to a handful of states.

us states jail rateUnsurprisingly, the states with the highest incarceration rates are states like Alabama and Louisiana where slavery and Jim Crow were most virulent and states like Arizona with patently racist anti-immigration laws.  A history of politically institutionalized racism is a strong indicator of how harsh laws and incarceration rates are in a given state.

This is all happening despite the fact that violent crime has remained constant or declined since the 1970s.

violent crime declineSome might try to argue that the violent crime rate has declined because of the incarceration boom.  But the New York Times quotes Michael Tonry, a leading expert and author on criminal policy,

“Rises and falls in Canada’s crime rate have closely paralleled America’s for 40 years, … But its imprisonment rate has remained stable.”

Canada’s socioeconomic wagon is strongly hitched to ours, and their violent crime rate has followed ours.  The evidence does not necessarily indicate that the mass imprisonment of nonviolent offenders has done much to affect violent crime rates.  The evidence does indicate, however, that particularly racist areas of the United States keep nonviolent Black and Hispanic people in cages in excessive amounts and for excessive durations for profit.

obama-marijuanaPuff, Puff, Pass Laws

The CCA’s lobbying and contributions are heavily in favor of politicians and laws that support the criminalization of drug use and lengthy sentencing in the drug war.  CCA even trains their own drug sniffing dogs which can be used at borders and in schools as part of dragnet programs to ‘fill beds.’

GlobalResearch reports that investors are drawn to the private prison industry because one of the major sources of profit return comes from

Jailing persons convicted of non-violent crimes, and long prison sentences for possession of microscopic quantities of illegal drugs. Federal law stipulates five years’ imprisonment without possibility of parole for possession of 5 grams of crack or 3.5 ounces of heroin, and 10 years for possession of less than 2 ounces of rock-cocaine or crack. A sentence of 5 years for cocaine powder requires possession of 500 grams – 100 times more than the quantity of rock cocaine for the same sentence. Most of those who use cocaine powder are white, middle-class or rich people, while mostly Blacks and Latinos use rock cocaine. In Texas, a person may be sentenced for up to two years’ imprisonment for possessing 4 ounces of marijuana. Here in New York, the 1973 Nelson Rockefeller anti-drug law provides for a mandatory prison sentence of 15 years to life for possession of 4 ounces of any illegal drug.

Marijuana is only about as intoxicating as alcohol while posing less threat from overdose than alcohol and is less addictive than nicotine.  It is a natural substance with medicinal properties and practical uses that has similar effects to legal substances.  America’s ongoing criminalization of the use of marijuana, in spite of a significant percentage of the population that enjoys it recreationally without any ill social effects, constitutes a modern-day Prohibition not unlike the Prohibition of alcohol nearly a century ago.  It is a policy unique among Western countries to jail people for the use of marijuana.

The criminalization of harder drugs is also problematic.  I wouldn’t try to argue that heroin or cocaine should be legalized.  But nor should prisons necessarily be teeming with people who are primarily a danger to themselves.  If they haven’t committed any other crime, addicts require medical treatment more than anything.  But there is, again, a racist element to drug laws.  Crack is widely used in poor urban areas by minorities, while cocaine is widely used among rich whites.  Cocaine use is even reported to be rampant on Wall Street.  The two substances are basically the same, but sentencing for crack use is much more severe than for cocaine.

The drug war is a massive drain on America’s revenue.  It punishes mostly victimless crimes with extremely and uniquely draconian sentences.  It functions as a dragnet of profitable free labor for the private prison industry.

Your Huddled Masses Yearning to Breathe Free

In a 2011 letter to his shareholders, George C. Zoley, GEO Group’s Chairman of the Board, CEO and founder wrote,

At the federal level, initiatives related to border enforcement and immigration detention with an emphasis on criminal alien populations as well as the consolidation of existing detainee populations have continued to create demand for larger-scale, cost efficient facilities.  [emphasis added]

According to this letter, the top level corporate culture of GEO Group views all immigrants–the whole population of them–as cash-cows.  Illegal immigrants, many of whom came to the US as a child and may know no other home, are just waiting to serve their purpose to fill GEO Group’s beds.  Their very existence is criminal.  And crime is money.  This chilling dehumanization of immigrants whitewashes the ugly nature of their business in case potential investors have a conscience.  Who writes this kind of stuff?  Meet GEO Group’s senior officers:

GEO senior officersThere are certainly no criminal aliens among that population!  There are seven pasty-white, rich, middle-aged men pushing to incarcerate Blacks and Hispanics for inhaling a weed or for being here.  And you thought all men were created equal.

Immigration enforcement is swiftly taking over the criminal justice system.  Immigration infractions have been the most prosecuted and most jailed-for crimes for several years running.  Prosecution of immigrants has been growing since the ’90s but spiked intensely following 9/11.

immigration prosecution spike from huffpo on immigrationIn 2010, the numbers of immigrants being processed at some stage in the justice system were around double the numbers of a decade earlier.

immigrants in system 2000 and 2010 from huffpo on immigrationThe rate of prosecution and incarceration of immigrants is growing much faster than the rate of immigration, legal or otherwise, to the United States.  But the prosecution and imprisonment rate of immigrants is keeping pace with the private prison industry’s rate of lobbying and contributing to political campaigns.

cops school

Hall Monitors

Though states vary, America spends more on prisons than on schools.  In some states the rates have essentially switched places in the budget.  In California, for instance, between 1980 and 2012, state expenditure on corrections increased from 3% to 11.2%.  Meanwhile, spending on higher education declined from 10% to 6.6%.  Today’s children face a future in which their country invests more heavily in keeping them in a box than teaching them.

The school-to-prison pipeline is growing and is getting worse.  The private prison industry pushes for zero tolerance policies in schools.  These policies have helped the private prison industry to net children for childish pranks or schoolyard tussling.  The industry pushes to criminalize adolescent behavior and prime children for the justice system, not for the adult working world.  As always, there is an institutionalized racist element to this.  A civil rights study of school districts with a population of at least 50,000 showed that in the 2009-2010 school year, there were 96,000 student arrests and

the data showed that African American students represented 24 percent of enrollment but 35 percent of arrests. White students accounted for 31 percent of enrollment and 21 percent of arrests.

Schools are increasingly becoming laboratories for criminal dragnet programs and policies that expand definitions of criminality.  They are also often the nexus between the criminalization of immigration, drug use and adolescence.  In Arizona, private prison companies regularly send security contractors to ‘sweep’ schools with dogs that detect marijuana.  Students, usually children of immigrants in socio-economically depressed areas, have been yanked from school and dumped into the criminal justice system for trace amounts of marijuana.

The NRA’s push to put armed cops in every school may also be part of this campaign to drag students away in chains.  Although the NRA is clearly self-interested in the expansion of gun ownership and the normalization of gun-toting in children’s lives, they may have another reason.  The NRA is a major corporate member of ALEC.  And pushing to create a police state in America’s schools would also help ALEC and the private prison industry to expand definitions of adolescent criminality and crack down on childhood crime using law enforcement.


Washington will soon be engaged in immigration reform.  We can expect that, through their GOP sock puppets, corporate America will fight against a more enlightened immigration policy like a cornered pitbull.  But as this report demonstrates, though America’s immigration system is a disaster, it is only one aspect of a much larger problem: the for-profit private prison industry.  The progressive movement must begin to use our voices to urge the president to push for change in how the country approaches criminal justice.  President Obama has a 2-year window until the midterm elections while he will be one of the most powerful progressive presidents in a lifetime.  We must urge him to begin to stem this tide.  While much of this policy grows at the state level, the federal government can tie funding to cooperation with a campaign to modernize and humanize America’s justice system.

Laws and punishments reflect society’s choices.  In Iran, you can be executed for marijuana, while in the Netherlands, you can buy it in cafes.  America is unique in the extent and severity of its prosecution and punishment of nonviolent crime.  And much of this uniqueness drips putridly with America’s uniquely racist history.  As Senator Elizabeth Warren demonstrated at her first banking committee hearing, the Wall Street regulators have never taken a bank to trial.  America has essentially made the choice that everything the extremely rich do is legal, and anything the extremely poor do is potentially criminal.  Even if you feel that you personally would never do anything to land yourself in jail, this system stretches the economy in both directions: enriching a few, impoverishing millions, destroying jobs and driving down wages.  It also taxes the system.  Each jail built is a school that isn’t built.

All Americans should abhor corporations linking the profit motive to the criminal justice system.  The corporate overlords have proved that there is nothing that they won’t seek to convert into profit if allowed.  The prison industry sucks the blood from communities and human beings and turns it into a river of cash that flows into only a few pockets.  This is an extremely dangerous precedent that is growing quickly.  There should be no money to be made in criminal justice, especially in criminal punishment.  Prisons should be a function of the state, subject to tight regulation and oversight, not cash cows for private shareholders.  Prisons should also not be subject to politics or social experiments.  Entire populations of people should not be targets for incarceration simply for being.  Prisons should be drab, boring and minimized to the extent possible.  They should not be an exploding business, hotbeds of abuse and suffering, or the toys of billionaires.

The policy of dragging students, minorities, immigrants, drug users, nonviolent and poor offenders off to prison for years and years has created a burgeoning underclass.  Nearly two million Americans are invisible people.  They are not widely discussed in political rhetoric or public discourse.  The parties toss the middle class back and forth like a football, and it is best they compete for our attention.  But no one discusses the poor, and especially the super-poor: the poor who are locked up for nonviolent crimes.  They are non-people in American social life.  And they work for corporate masters, for no compensation.

There is a word for this political, social and economic arrangement.  In our history, it is a word heavy with the dread of America’s original sin.  When a person whose freedom, body and labor are wholly owned by another person, and when the owner prospers, as Abraham Lincoln said, by “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces” then the person who is owned is a slave.  Private prisons are modern slave plantations.  CCA and GEO Group are slaveholders.  It is February, 2013 and slavery is returning to America.

When the Patriot Act was first signed into law in 2001, when Wall Street crashed the economy in 2008, we have had discussions on the left about the potential for undemocratic tyranny.  I have argued that absolute tyranny is basically impossible in America.  But in darkened crannies of society, localized tyranny is very possible.  And Citizens United has simplified America’s general policy of letting corporations run buck wild.  Most of the data in this report are from before the Supreme Court issued its Citizens United decision, and the money laundering and corruption that it legalized are likely to be jet fuel for the acceleration of the private prison industry’s influence and profits.  This speaks to the banality of evil.  Everyone involved is just playing a role in a system that none of them designed.  The nihilistic expansion of prisons and prison labor is incompatible with democratic life.  We have fought back hard against the encroachment of corporate influence over our freedom.  But for hundreds of thousands of Americans who haven’t hurt anyone, languishing in a privately-owned cell today, we are already too late.

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