Following the Money, Prison Edition

Recent research from In the Public Interest reports that “graduates” of private prisons have higher rates of recidivism than ex-offenders leaving public institutions.

The brief shows that people incarcerated in prisons operated by for-profit companies, like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, have higher rates of recidivism than people incarcerated in publicly managed prisons. Evidence also suggests that prison telephone and video call companies make business decisions that increase the likelihood that prisoners subjected to their services will return to prison or jail.

The research attributes the higher recidivism rates to several factors: Private prisons are, on average, more violent than public prisons; the emphasis upon filling empty beds in their often far-flung facilities results in incarceration of offenders in locations that are often far away from their homes, with a resulting loss of contact with families and home communities; prison telephone companies charge high calling rates and many ban prisoner cell phones, which further reduces contacts between prisoners and their homes. (Adding to the problem, private prisons often ban in-person visitation and then charge prisoners and their families prohibitive rates to make video calls.)

The report notes that private prison companies have long histories of neglecting prisoners’ basic needs, focusing instead on their company’s revenues and profits. For example,

To reduce normal business risks around fluctuating prison populations, private prison companies add occupancy guarantee clauses to many contracts, which compel states and local governments to pay the companies for unused beds if the population drops below a certain threshold, typically around 90 percent of a facility’s capacity.

During the past few years, there has been growing concern about the operation and consequences of placing offenders in private prisons. As the New Yorker has reported,

Going into Election Day, few industries seemed in worse shape than America’s private prisons. Prison populations, which had been rising for decades, were falling. In 2014, Corrections Corporation of America, the biggest private-prison company in the U.S., lost its contract to run Idaho’s largest prison, after lawsuits relating to understaffing and violence that had earned the place the nickname Gladiator School. There were press exposés of shocking conditions in the industry and signs of a policy shift toward it….In August, the Justice Department said that private federal prisons were less safe and less secure than government-run ones. The same month, the department announced that it would phase out the use of private prisons at the federal level. Although most of the private-prison industry operates on the state level (immigrant-detention centers are its other big business), the news sent C.C.A.’s stock down by thirty-five per cent.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, that all changed. C.C.A.’s stock jumped forty-seven per cent. (It wasn’t just private prisons, either; Trump’s privatization promises caused sharp increases in the stock prices of for-profit schools .) As the New Yorker pointed out, the outlook for private prisons is particularly rosy, because so many of Trump’s policies will–if implemented– benefit them.

The Justice Department’s plan to phase out private prisons will likely be scrapped, and a growing bipartisan movement for prison and sentencing reform is about to run up against a President who campaigned as a defender of “law and order.” Above all, Trump’s hard-line position on immigration seems certain to fill detention centers, one of the biggest money spinners for private-prison operators.

As the article concludes,

It’s become common to speak of “the prison-industrial complex,” and the analogy to the military-industrial complex is a good one: in both cases, government spending helps fund very profitable businesses, which, in turn, lobby legislators and regulators to keep the funds flowing. Just as we spend billions on weapons systems that we may not need, so, too, we jail more people than we need for longer than necessary, because it keeps someone’s balance sheet healthy. In recent years, an unlikely coalition of conservatives and liberals had made some progress in weakening this system, going after policies like mandatory sentences. Trump’s election will make it much harder to sustain that progress. Private prisons, he said earlier this year, “work a lot better,” and he’ll doubtless look to expand their reach. And he has a simple and grim answer to how many people we should put in prisons and detention centers: More.

Welcome to policymaking in the Trump era, where evidence and experience are irrelevant, expertise and research are scorned as “elitist” and private profit is king.


  1. Pence has shown that he is the perfect little bitch for trump. He is willing to defend Trump’s lies and doesn’t care that trump has no respect or use for facts. If memory serves me correctly, wasn’t pence a supporter of private prisons and received political contributions from them?

    Fascism, here we come!

  2. If you haven’t already noticed – I refuse to give trump or pence the respect of capitalizing the first letters of their names.

  3. The rules of supply and demand don’t apply here. If there is no demand, the taxpayer will pay for non-delivered services anyway. “Free market” at its finest.

  4. Question #1: what happened with the Indiana privately run prison (with a large area empty of prisoners due to lack of money for security) which was housing prisoners from Arizona (and possibly other southwestern states) which was the scene of a violent prison riot a few years ago. One reason for the riot was the inability of families to visit prisoners plus the fact that the contract stated no violent prisoners would be housed here but that was ignored by the private company running the prison and many prisoners were violent felony offenders. It seemed to disappear from the news rather quickly. Yes; more long sentences but I am having long thoughts about this issue.

    Question #2: Shouldn’t this problem of privately run prisons be resolved with finality before we move back to the issue of a new judicial center here in Indianapolis? Prisoners are sent from our local judicial system to those prisons located in other parts of the state…I know this due to a few of my family members being among them. One of them is an in-law (thank the Lord for small favors) who is on that long list covered under the heading of “recidivism”.

    Continuing the highly questionable and costly support of privately run prisons while considering construction of a new judicial center (now more likely than ever) is like building a new home and moving furniture and belongings in before the roof is in place. Of course there is the issue of internal problems in all judicial systems which also need to be addressed. This is a multi-faceted problem which has been ignored for years; which allowed the privately run prisons to get a strong foothold in many states.

    What is the cost of resolving this issue and how will tax payers be able to afford to cover this cost in addition to United Technologies, Corp./Carrier? Headline on front page of the Indianapolis Star today; “Pence sidesteps Rexnord questions”; we cannot sidestep the connection between these issues because we, the taxpayers, are being handed the bill.

  5. JoAnn,

    “Headline on front page of the Indianapolis Star today; “Pence sidesteps Rexnord questions”; we cannot sidestep the connection between these issues because we, the taxpayers, are being handed the bill.”

    It looks like there is going to be trouble at the “Apex of the Devil’s Triangle.”

    a-pex (a’peks) n. pl. a’pex’es or ap-i-ces (ap’ e sez’) [L] l. the highest point 2. the pointed end; tip 3. the climax

  6. I have been opposed to privately run prisons since they started because I thought and still think that imprisoning criminals is and should be a government-run effort. It is the government that takes their liberty and it should be the government that cares for them while confined. This is another example of the corporate takeover of America buttressed by the mantra that private enterprise can always do things better than the gummint, that bunch of lazy fumblers. We even see our military efforts outsourced to Blackwater and others in the corporatization of war as well as peace. (Blackwater’s CEO, incidentally, is Erik Prince, brother of our soon-to-be Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, long time foe of public education and the wife of billionaire Rich DeVos, heir to the Amway billions.)
    I have visited clients in many jails and the state prison in Michigan City in my day and thought government- run facilities were adequate for the task considering that the collective loss of liberty by inmates can only be described as a negative effort. It is telling that the private prison system by contract is paid for the care and upkeep of a certain number of prisoners whether the prisoners are in their care or not, and that this money is paid by the state from taxpayer funds (which were ostensibly to be saved by going private). Free enterprise? Sounds like corporate socialism to me.

  7. JoAnn,

    “Yes” to all you write here. While those who engage in signing contracts with private businesses to incarcerate people for profit (bet the kick backs in these deals are off the charts) we need to remember that the majority of Indiana voters do not have a problem with these immoral decisions made in their name. Glossing over this unconstitutional privatization of all things government is the always obliging ally to greed… fundamentalist, for profit religion.

  8. Once again, lazy government workers are shown to do a better job than industrious private sector employees.

  9. Gerald,

    “…(Blackwater’s CEO, incidentally, is Erik Prince, brother of our soon-to-be Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, long time foe of public education and the wife of billionaire Rich DeVos, heir to the Amway billions.)”

    As Nancy so eloquently stated, “Fascism, here we come!”

    My younger sister and her deceased husband were the Amway “King and Queen” of North Florida. Two to Three thousand of their followers packed the Times Union Center every year. It was no coincidence that my sister’s son would become the most extreme far right candidate in our last city election. A little good news; he was too extreme even for Jacksonville. But that was last year. Now he might even be considered a moderate extremist around this “God- forsaken place.”

  10. The “the prison-industrial complex” is a pittance compared to the military industrial complex. Let’s focus attention on the far greater evil and withdraw valuable and limited taxpayers dollars that are largely wasted on contracts given to the merchants of death.

  11. Oops, my comment is awaiting moderation for the two links I provided. Sorry about that Professor.

  12. Just an interesting observation: A few years back, even the Republican/Conservative Indiana Legislature enacted some common sense sentencing reforms and gave back a little authority to judges to suspend some sentences. The reason they did so was because the cost of building new prisons to house largely non-violent drug offenders and running the prisons was about to overwhelm the State budget. With the advent of the private prison industry that incentive to reform sentencing has now disappeared. Now, in order to keep getting their campaign contributions form the private prison industry, law makers have to make sure that there are enough prisoners to justify the contracts with the private prisons.

    Probably the only way — until Trump/Pence/Sessions start jailing large numbers of protesters for sedition — to keep a sufficient number of prisoners flowing to private prisons will be to renew and double down on the failed “War On Drugs” (once again, thank you to Dick Nixon and Co. for your continuing legacy). And also a step-back to draconian mandatory and non-suspendable sentences for even small time drug offenses.

    But the easy pickings for drug busts are personal marijuana users and small-time pot dealers, particularly those in minority neighborhoods. I would bet we will soon see an increased effort from the DEA on busting personal marijuana users and small corner dealers. (As a side benefit, the more drug busts, the more personal property and money law enforcement agencies and prosecutors can seize in forfeiture actions — sometimes without ever charging someone with a crime, which they can then spend on more toys and goodies for themselves. Another money incentive to arrest people).

    Couple the need to keep prisoners flowing to the private prisons with the fact that Jeff Sessions, our soon-to-be U.S. Attorney General, in addition to being a thinly veiled racist, is an ardent foe of marijuana legalization. I predict Sessions will order the DEA to start shutting down the legal marijuana businesses in the States, in which a majority of citizens have voted to legalize medical and personal use of marijuana, by enforcing the Federal laws against marijuana. So much for “State’s Rights,” and the will of the people; two of the Repub/Tea Party’s favorite mantras!

    If this occurs, and I would be surprised if it didn’t, it will be interesting to see the reactions of the State governments and the majority of citizens in those states who voted to legalize marijuana. States like Colorado where the State treasury is now raking in millions of dollars every year from the legal sale of pot and many good paying jobs have been created by the legal pot industry with relatively minor bad side effects on safety and health or use by teens. Hopefully there will be a great deal of blow back.

  13. Thanks for this your attention to this issue Sheila. Years ago, the privatization of prisons in a southwestern state came to my attention. When the prison profiteers and government agreed to the contract, the state forgot to include every single duty they ‘expect’ state workers to do. One of those things was to pursue escaped inmates. The private prison refused to pursue and find the escapees because that wasn’t in their contract.

    Government provided certain services because private companies couldn’t make a profit doing so. If private providers ARE able to make a profit, it’s because services, safety, and/or quality will be shortchanged. In the case of prisons (as with other government services), that not only endangers those directly impacted by those services such as the inmates but the public as well.

  14. David F,

    “Probably the only way — until Trump/Pence/Sessions start jailing large numbers of protesters for sedition…”

    That scenario is why it is imperative that opposition to Trump/Pence must be solidified before the inauguration. Afterward, we will be experiencing an altogether different political environment than the present. It will be physically dangerous. The Trump/Pence administration will be forced to take stringent measures to quell protestors, much more so than during the civil rights movement in the 60’s.

  15. Nancy, I wish Sheila would invest in “like” buttons here.

    It really has would down to democracy vs oligarchy. That’s a pretty fundamental worldview difference and quickly becomes oligarchy/regressive vs democracy/progressive. We the people vs we the corporations.

    I personally can find no middle ground. It is one OR the other.

  16. Nancy, the private prison industry spreads around its contributions to both Democrats and Republicans. Hillary Clinton received a lot of money from the No. 1 private prison corporation, CCA.

    Say what you want about Pence, but he didn’t take a single step toward further privatizing Indiana prisons. New Castle was privatized during Gov. Daniels watch as was prison health care. Other than that, Indiana has not gone down the route of prison privatization. Some of the counties have. Indianapolis has Jail #2 run by CCA, run terribly I might add.

  17. “Make a law, make a profit.”

    Follow the money is an understatement. Consider the bipartisan aristocracy of stock profits and of George Carlin’s still relevant words, “There’s a big club, and we ain’t in it.”

    A detailed look at the growth of for-profit prisons and of those bipartisan characters who are in the big club, the profiteers who made it possible.

  18. Why aren’t people smart enough to realize that tax payers rarely save by privatization over the long term and seldom on the short term even. Nobody invests on the prospect of losing money.

  19. “Why aren’t people smart enough to realize that taxpayers rarely save by privatization over the long term and seldom on the short term even.”

    Pete, I’m convinced a majority of people either don’t understand who ultimately benefits from privatization or simply don’t care. This same group likely doesn’t know the difference between a for-profit school and a publicly operated charter school. Going out on a limb, I doubt some folks know the difference between a sirloin and a sewer line.

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