Private Prisons: The Case for Divestment

Tom Beasley, the co-founder of the largest private prison company in the country, the Corrections Corporation of America, once boasted that selling prisons was little different from selling "cars, or real estate, or hamburgers."

That may have been music to the ears of his shareholders, but it also revealed how little private companies care about the people they are entrusted with keeping under lock and key -- the prisoners themselves -- as long as there is money to be made off them.

Ever since prisoner numbers started skyrocketing around the country in the 1980s, the private prison business has been sniffing for a piece of the action. By now, private prison companies rake in annual profits of close to $5 billion and are lobbying for more.

That's not just wrong in principle -- our criminal justice system is not a business, and people who are incarcerated should not be treated as assets on a corporate ledger. As is increasingly apparent, it has also led to abuses and mistreatment in practice, all in the name of the bottom line.

Across the country, there are reports of companies cutting back on staff training, medical care and rehabilitative services. This saves them money, but it can also contribute to a sharp deterioration in conditions, for employees as well as prisoners. Assault rates have skyrocketed in some facilities, and complaints and lawsuits are piling up. In 2009, for example, CCA reached a $1.3 million settlement with female employees who alleged serious sexual harassment. In 2011, an ACLU suit drew attention to nightmarish conditions inside the Idaho Corrections Center, nicknamed the "Gladiator School." A year later, an investigation by the state of Ohio found that chronically ill AIDS and diabetes patients in private prisons were not being granted access to the medical care they needed.

Part of the reason that the United States incarcerates more of its population than any other nation in the world is that companies like CCA and the GEO Group lobby to ensure the spread of privatized incarceration. Back in the 1990s, when the "tough on crime" mentality had its strongest hold on state and federal lawmakers, CCA chaired a Criminal Justice Task Force on behalf of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which successfully pushed "three strikes" and "truth in sentencing" legislation to extend prison terms around the country.CCA denies any role in passing ALEC's harsh sentencing bills, but since the company and ALEC operate behind closed doors with little transparency or public accountability there is no public evidence to support this position.

The excesses of these shortsighted policies, and of the private prison companies who have reaped the benefit of them, are now leading to a change in mentality. At least seven states -- New York, New Hampshire, Illinois, Idaho, Mississippi, Kentucky and Louisiana -- have cut back or severed their ties with the private prison industry because of concerns about rising costs, understaffing, inmate safety and reports of inmate deaths, among other problems. Kentucky is ending a 28-year history with CCA and transferring former CCA inmates to publicly run institutions.

It has become obvious even to "lock 'em up" legislators that private prisons offer a bad deal -- charging a daily rate per prisoner and costing taxpayers billions of dollars but in many cases offering dangerous, ineffective facilities in return.

At ColorOfChange, the nation's predominant online civil rights organization, we want ties with private prisons to be cut everywhere. That's why we, in collaboration with Grassroots Leadership and other partners, are now calling on investors in private prison companies, board members, industry leaders and politicians to pull out their money or otherwise end their association with them.

We've contacted more than 150 corporations, and to date about 70 have responded. Many are open to discussing ways to divest from the industry. In the coming months, we will reveal what major financial funds remain invested, and we will be challenging the leaders of these institutions to stand for people over profit.

The tens of thousands of our members who have signed on to the campaign agree with the growing consensus that privatization and the justice system are mutually exclusive. For-profit prisons foster corruption of our government officials and erode our democracy. It's time that this travesty of our criminal justice system came to an end.