Private Prisons Industry: Increasing Incarcerations, Maximizing Profits and Corrupting Our Democracy

The growing influence of private prisons over our criminal justice policies is a chilling reminder of what happens when corporations can spend large amounts of money to curry favor with elected officials.
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Earlier this year in Louisiana, a plan by Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) to privatize prisons narrowly failed in a legislative committee by a vote of 13 to 12. The 12 members of the House Appropriations Committee who voted to approve the prison privatization plan have received more than three times more money from private prison donors than the 13 members who voted against the plan, according to an analysis of data from the Louisiana Ethics Administration and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Gov. Jindal himself has taken nearly $30,000 from the private prison industry.

This is but one example of many in a new report from Public Campaign and PICO National Network, Unholy Alliance: How the Private Prison Industry is Corrupting Our Democracy and Promoting Mass Incarceration, highlighting the increasingly powerful and influential private prison industry. The report was released yesterday at a gathering of hundreds of clergy members at the PICO National Clergy Gathering in New Orleans.

While the overall prison population has grown dramatically over the last two decades, the growth of inmates being detained in private, for-profit prisons has skyrocketed. Between 1990 and 2009, the total number of inmates in federal and state prisons doubled, while private prisons saw its business explode -- the private prison population in 2009 was 17 times larger than two decades earlier.

This isn’t an accident.

As the report states, the growth in prison populations:

“...Has been part of an intentional effort by the private prison industry to shape public policy to push more people into prison and keep them there longer. The industry has achieved this through the classic three-pronged strategy of contributing to political campaigns, lobbying, and gaining access to policymakers through close relationships.”

If you spend a minute to reflect on that point, you’ll come to the same conclusion I have: it’s not just that the current campaign finance system is bad for our country. It’s immoral.

Here are a few key points from the report that lay out the argument:

  • Through involvement in the leadership of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), private prison companies have played a key role in lobbying for and passing harsher sentencing for non-violent offenses including three-strike laws, mandatory sentencing, and truth-in-sentencing. They are also behind the recent spate of anti-immigrant state laws that are putting more and more immigrants behind bars -- the new profit center for the prison industrial complex.
  • Private prison companies employ legions of lobbyists to push for policies that support their bottom line. Since 2001, three major prison companies, CCA, GEO Group and Cornell, have spent over $22 million lobbying Congress. Recent lobbying by CCA and GEO Group includes efforts to increase funding to Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE). Since 2003, CCA has employed 204 of lobbyists in 32 states, and GEO Group has employed by 79 lobbyists in 17 states.
  • Private prison companies also influence policymaking by strategically supporting political campaigns. At the federal level, the political action committees and executives of private prison companies have given at least $3.3 million to political parties, candidates, and their political action committees since 2001. The private prison industry has given more than $7.3 million to state candidates and political parties since 2001, including $1.9 million in 2010, the highest amount in the past decade.

The growing influence of these private prison companies over our criminal justice and immigration policies is a chilling reminder of what happens when corporations can spend large amounts of money to curry favor with elected officials.

The full report is available both on PICO’s Website and Public Campaign’s.

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