Like many states in the "tough on crime" era, Minnesota is struggling to reduce overcrowding in its prisons and jails. For now, the state's government is paying counties to house over 500 incarcerated people that its prisons can't hold. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the notorious private prison operator, says they have a long-term solution for Minnesota.
But Minnesotans, backed by the criminal justice reform movement sweeping the country, are responding with "No thanks!"
CCA wants to reopen the shuttered Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, MN, and lease space to the state. They deny they're lobbying in Minnesota, but a politically connected lobbying firm, Goff Public Affairs, is pushing state officials to reopen the prison. That would be a costly mistake for both moral and economic reasons.
The company has a long rap sheet of cutting corners for the sake of profit, often understaffing facilities and overworking and underpaying correctional officers. Over the course of one month in 2013, CCA lost contracts in four different states after several prisoner deaths and riots under their watch. One of those contracts was with the state of Idaho for a prison so dangerous its prisoners called the facility 'Gladiator School'.
In 2012, CCA sent a letter to the nation's governors offering to buy prisons from states with "challenging corrections budgets." In exchange, they wanted the state to guarantee 90% prisoner occupancy for at least 20 years. To sell the deal they touted the recently purchased Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Ohio. But only a year into CCA's control of the facility, state audits found staff mismanagement, delays in medical treatment, and "unacceptable living conditions," including a lack of access to toilet facilities, which forced prisoners to defecate in plastic containers and bags.
It's no accident that CCA wants Minnesota taxpayers to foot the bill to reopen Prairie Correctional Facility. Once operational, the facility could hold up to 1,600 prisoners, which would leave over a thousand open beds beyond Minnesota's needs. CCA actively markets open beds to state and local governments across state lines as an opportunity to ease overcrowding. As of late 2013, 10,500 prisoners were housed outside of their home states in for-profit prisons. This practice incentivizes more incarceration within and across state lines--with beds to fill and profits to be made, a publicly traded company like CCA will work hard to fill them.
Their financial chicanery doesn't end there. A few years ago CCA converted their corporate structure into a type of real estate company called a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT). In addition to tax benefits, the change allows them to own the prisons they operate, meaning they earn profits as both landlord and operator.
Minnesotans fighting for good jobs and a humane criminal justice system aren't alone in standing up against the private corrections industry. Last week, in a significant decision to limit privatization's impact on prisoners and families, the FCC capped the price of prison phone calls. And presidential candidate Hillary Clinton recently stopped accepting campaign contributions from the private prison industry, including CCA.
There are much wiser ways for Minnesota to reduce overcrowding. Across the country, states are starting to have the hard conversations required to rebuild our underfunded mental health system, create job training programs, and roll back mandatory sentencing for non-violent drug offenses.
"We need to restore families, not destroy them," said Toya Woodland of faith-based group ISAIAH, which is opposing the CCA deal. That should be the standard for our criminal justice system, not whether there's profit to be made.