The United States prison industry is massive. As of 2016, there were an estimated 2.3 million people behind bars and 5 million people on probation or parole. The number of incarcerated people has increased by 700% since 1970. The estimated cost of the prison industry is $182 billion each year, with the cost of incarceration alone nearly $74 billion. In hopes of claiming a piece of the $182 billion, hundreds of companies have signed contracts with the U.S. government to privatize nearly every aspect of the prison industry, from facility management to phone calls.
In 2015, 18 percent of federal prisoners, 7 percent of state prisoners, and 70 percent of immigrant detainees were held in private facilities. Two prominent companies in this industry are CoreCivic, Inc. (formerly Corrections Corporation of America or CCA) and the GEO Group, which operate private prison facilities and immigration detention centers. They continue to expand their control in the prison industry, raising questions about the ethical implications of incarcerating people for profit. These two corporations spend substantial money on lobbying and campaign contributions to secure contracts and promote legislation that results in higher rates of incarceration and immigration detention. For example, the “tough on crime” legislation of the 1990’s came out of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). During that time, CCA (now CoreCivic) was the Private Sector Chair of ALEC’s Public Safety Taskforce. The profit motive of these corporations is at odds with the purpose of corrections, which is to treat and rehabilitate individuals, thus reducing recidivism. Unfortunately, higher recidivism rates are in the best financial interest of private prison operators.
In addition, these corporations have demonstrated patterns of mismanagement, abuse, neglect, and other problems. Riots, escapes, lawsuits, and other scandals have piled up over the decades, providing collective indictment of the business model of for-profit prisons. In August 2016, the Obama administration ordered the Bureau of Prisons to not renew any contracts with private prison companies, due to these concerns. However, the Trump administration has rescinded that order, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has told the Bureau to return to its previous approach of utilizing private prisons.
While facility management is the most common association with prison privatization, it is just the top of the iceberg for prison profiteering. Whether public or private, all prisons, jails, and detention centers have to purchase goods and services for their operation. Incarcerated people must be fed and clothed, transported from place to place, and provided their medical and mental health needs. Incarcerated people must have visitation programs and phone devices to contact their loved ones. Incarcerated people must also have access to money while incarcerated. All of these services allow a myriad of ways to profit off of the prison industry. When a company receives a contract from a prison or detention center, it is provided a literally captive market for its products or services.
There are also profit opportunities outside of the brick-and-mortar prisons. More people are beginning to see mass incarceration as a problem, and are leaning towards other solutions, such as reentry programs or community corrections. About 5 million people in the U.S. are in some form of criminal justice supervision, such as probation or parole, and these programs are a new niche market for companies like CoreCivic and GEO Group. When contracted by the government, these corporations can charge fees for supervision, monitoring equipment, drug testing, counseling, and the like. While the profit generated from each person under supervision is lower compared to an incarcerated person, there are more people supervised compared to incarcerated, and the length of time a person is under supervision is also typically longer than incarceration. As a result, this emerging market has the potential to ensnare more individuals, under increasing levels of supervision and surveillance, for increasing lengths of time—in some cases, for the rest of their lives.
A particularly disturbing offshoot of the community corrections sector is the trend toward for-profit probation. In at least ten states, mostly in Southern U.S., municipal courts contract with private, for-profit probation companies. Unlike some state probation programs, where probation provides an alternative to incarceration, individuals in these states can be placed under probation for misdemeanors such as minor traffic violations, shoplifting, or public intoxication, if they cannot afford to pay their court ordered fines. Once on probation, they are expected to pay the private company monthly fees for being supervised, in addition to paying their original fine. Human Rights Watch investigated these profit schemes and found that “[m]any of these offenses carry no real threat of jail time in and of themselves, yet each month, courts issue thousands of arrest warrants for offenders who fail to make adequate payments towards fines and probation company fees.” The result has been likened to the creation of modern day debtor’s prisons. Not only does this represent an unequal system of justice, one for those who can pay and another for those who cannot, it also puts taxpayers on the hook, paying for jail time that is completely unnecessary and counterproductive.
As long as there is so much money to be made from mass incarceration and other punishments, the movement to reduce the scope and impact of the criminal punishment system is likely to be undermined.