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Profits Over Justice: The 21st century prison system in America

Since 1970 the rate of incarceration within the United States has increased by nearly 700 percent, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The growing trend of incarceration, however, does not respond to trends of crime, as violent and non-violent crimes have declined every decade since 1980, according to data from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Instead, the rise in incarceration can be linked to an expanding privatized prison complex spearheaded by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The GEO Group, Inc. (GEO), two of the largest private correction providers in the US, who have been spending time and effort in reforming legislation and expanding infrastructure, all the while keeping their industry viable and their shareholders rich.

Criminal law reform

Throughout the 1970s, state prisons followed an “indeterminate sentencing model,” meaning that the sentence term of prisoners was determined by parole boards who considered release on an individual basis. In addition, the Bureau of Justice Statistics writes that satisfactory prison behavior, participation in work or educational programs, and other time reductions were set in place during this period to control prison crowding. However, such discretion towards convicted criminals ignited heavy criticism from the public, and while the “War on Drugs” raged on, a “get tough on crime” mentality took hold of society and legislation, leading to widespread criminal law reform.

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By 1984, the state of Washington passed the first true “truth-in-sentencing” law, which required prisoners to serve a minimum of 85 percent of their prison sentence before they could apply for early release. Subsequently, parole boards and other modes for early release were dropped by at least fifteen states in the US, including three of the top ten states with the highest rate of incarceration (Mississippi, Arizona, Florida). In the same year, the US Congress began to re-enact mandatory minimum sentences under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which serves as a uniform sentencing policy for crimes considered to be class A misdemeanors or felonies. First written within the Narcotic Control Act of 1956, mandatory minimum sentences had been repealed in 1970, mostly because they were seen as ineffective in reducing drug violations.

In the 1990s, state lawmakers passed the first true “three strikes” law, giving life sentences to repeat offenders, in Washington and California and later in 25 other states, further contributing to a prison population with longer sentence terms. The result of this widespread reformation left both state and federal prisons overcrowded and, thus, unable to receive more prisoners. So, to meet the growing demand, they began to contract with private prison companies.

The rise of CCA and The GEO Group

Founded as the first private prison company in 1983, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was the brainchild of three individuals – Tom Beasley, Robert Crants and Don Hutto – who already had strong ties to political, business and correctional offices in the state of Tennessee, respectively. As described by the Justice Policy Institute, the three “Uncovered a system plagued by overcrowding [and] tight budgets… convincing [them] that with a few simple applications of business practices the corrections system could be transformed from an inefficient bureaucracy to a profitable business.” Since its inception, CCA has grown to be a billion dollar company that constructs and manages 66 correctional and detention facilities across the US.

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Likewise, The GEO Group, originally Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, was founded in 1984 as a for-profit private corrections, detention and mental health treatment provider. Today, GEO runs 96 facilities in North America, Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom. Both the CCA and GEOrecord near 50 percent of their annual earnings through state level contracts, while the remaining 50 percent comes through contracts with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, US Marshals and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. As of 2010, these two private prison giants netted a total of $2.9 billion, as cited in the Justice Policy Institutes’s 2011 “Gaming the System” report. The same year, CCA’s President and CEO Damon T. Hininger received $3.2 million in executive compensation, while GEO Group’s Chairman and CEO George Zoley received $3.5 million, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). While all profits of private prisons come from government contracts at the state and federal level, it is taxpayer money that ultimately funds the durability of the private prison industry.

The Justice Policy Institute writes, “With the promise of comparable corrections services at a greatly reduced cost, state, federal, and local governments have increasingly contracted with the private sector for the financing, design, construction, management, and staffing of prisons, jails, and other correctional facilities… Despite no conclusive evidence in the cost savings of private corrections, and growing evidence of significant collateral expenses borne by the public of incarcerating people in private prisons, the trend of for-profit prison privatization continues.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council

Reported by the American Civil Liberties Union, the population size of private prisons within the US has increased by more than 1,600 percent since 1990. To consider that before 1983 private prisons did not exist while today they house nearly 130,000 prisoners, the ACLU attests to the fact that the “private prison explosion went hand-in-hand with [the] massive increase in incarceration rates” during the same period. However, it is important to note that this correlation was not by accident. One of the biggest supporters and partners of companies like CCA and GEO is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization made of state legislators who have pushed harsh sentencing and detention laws into effect since 1975. In fact, ALEC legislators were responsible for enacting “truth in sentencing” and “three strikes” laws in as many as 27 states, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Described by one ALEC member in ACLU’s report, “The organization is supported by money from the corporate sector, and, by paying to be members, corporations are allowed the opportunity to sit down at the table and discuss the issues that they have an interest in. After ALEC meetings, legislators return to their home states with ALEC model legislation.”

Senate Bill 1070

The relationship between private prison companies and American Legislative Exchange Council members has strengthened in recent years with the rise of immigration reform. Reported by the Columbia Journalism Review, CCA has given tens of thousands of dollars to US Senators like R-TN Sen. Lamar Alexander and Sen. Bob Corker, R-AZ Sen. John McCain and R-FL Sen. Marco Rubio for the purpose of advancing immigration reform through legislation.

Highly controversial in 2010 was Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070. Under the provisions of SB 1070, any person unable to show legal documentation in the state is subject to incarceration. However, many argue that the bill unlawfully allows for racial profiling and civil liberty violations. Writing for PolicyMic.com, Ashwin Sharma contends that the law “requires the establishment of a Police State in which state and local police are granted vast powers including the right to demand evidence of immigration status from every individual stopped… if they have a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that the person is in the US unlawfully.”

And while the bill was being considered by the US Supreme Court in 2012, the Department of Justice published an investigative report looking into allegations of racial profiling by Arizona Country Sheriff Joe Arpioa. According to the report, Arpioa and his County Sheriff Office had engaged in “unconstitutional policing” since 2008; racial profiling and discrimination of Latinos, denial of “critical” services to non-English speaking inmates, and failed investigations of hundreds of sex crimes were all allegedly carried out by the state’s largest County Office.

In 2011, National Public Radio’s Laura Sullivan reported that SB 1070 was conceived and drafted between ALEC member and Arizona state legislator Russell Pearce and CCA representatives at a private meeting held in Washington, DC. Returning to Arizona with draft in hand, Pearce and other state legislators arrived 60 miles north of the US-Mexico border in the small town of Benson. Speaking with National Public Radio, Benson city manager Glenn Nichols recalled the meeting: “They talk[ed] about how positive this was going to be for the community, the amount of money that we would realize from each prisoner on a daily rate… They talked like they didn’t have any doubt they could fill it.” In fact, with a record number of undocumented immigrants reaching close to 400,000 in 2011, CCA reports highlight immigrant detention as “a significant proportion of [their] revenues.”

Recapped in the CCA 2010 Annual Report, the company stated the following: “We believe we have been successful in increasing the number of residents in our care and continue to pursue a number of initiatives intended to further increase our occupancy and revenue.”

Today, the US constitutes 5 percent of the world’s population, while it incarcerates more than 25 percent of its prisoners. As policy in the US continues to change in favor of more arrests and harsher sentences, the private prison industry will continue to profit billions of dollars by adding more prisoners to an already disproportionate population.

In light of the industry’s political and business tactics to increase profits, it draws accurate comparisons with other powerful industries. Truth-Out.org’s Dina Rasor writes that just as “privatizing the logistics of war will encourage private war-service industries to lobby for a hot war or long occupation to keep their industries viable, there has emerged a group of prison industries, state and federal legislators, and other players who will continue to benefit from our disgraceful ranking as the world’s largest warden.”

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