We’re at that point in the semester when my students in Law and Public Policy are doing their team presentations–sharing the results of research via Power Points and mock debates. More than one of these presentations has taught me something I didn’t know. (This is one of the “perks” of the profession, actually–you learn a lot when you teach.)
One of the teams chose to research prison privatization, a subject about which I know very little.
They began by noting that private prisons were rare prior to 1980, that they became more common in the eighties, and that between 1990 and 2009, America experienced a 1600% increase in its prison population. Given the significant sums of money involved, they wondered whether this dramatic increase in incarceration might be at least partially explained by contractual obligations to fill cells in those proliferating private facilities.
Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group dominate the private prison industry, and according to the students’ research, the industry is very profitable. (Corrections Corporation of America had a share price of $1 in 2000; in 2013 it was $34.34.) In one representative contract, in Tennessee, CCA was guaranteed an occupancy rate of 90%, a guarantee that required frequent moves of inmates out of public facilities and into the private ones. Both the guarantee and the frequent shuffling of prisoners are evidently common.
You don’t have to be a bleeding heart to recognize that inmates–large numbers of whom have not been convicted of violent crimes– are entitled to be treated humanely. The number of fines, lawsuits and investigations into the management of these facilities strongly suggests that the profit motive takes precedence over the provision of basic medical care, nutrition and even physical safety.
Where there’s profit, there’s usually politics, and private prisons are no exception.
In 2013, the Indiana General Assembly undertook to modernize the state’s criminal code. One of the original changes would have reduced penalties for possession of small amounts of pot; however, Governor Pence intervened, insisting that penalties for marijuana possession and dealing be increased rather than decreased.
According to a news article at the time,
One proposed change expected to be voted on Thursday would make possession of between about one third of an ounce and 10 pounds of marijuana the lowest-level felony rather than the highest-level misdemeanor. Indiana is eighth on the list of states where GEO does its spending, as it’s sunk more than $60,000 into state elections there. It specifically contributed $12,500 to the 2012 Pence campaign, which doesn’t seem like much without context. That contribution made GEO one of Pence’s top 30 corporate contributors, ranking in front of US Steel Corp, Caterpillar, and Koch Industries.
When prisons are profit centers, the incentives are all perverse.