The corrupt and broken legislative process in the United States has allowed several outside influences to pay for policy changes. America’s Private Prison System has transformed into an industry run by political lobbyists. In the early 1980s, the Corrections Corporation of America pioneered the idea of running prisons for a profit. “You just sell it like you were selling cars, or real estate, or hamburgers” (Larson). The CCA was created by Don Hutto, Tom Beasley and Doctor Crants, three enterprising leaders, that would transform the way government and private business worked together in the US. Currently the CCA is the largest private prison organization and manages more than 61 facilities with over 90,000 beds. 2011 marked a record year of profits for CCA, raising $1.7 billion in total revenue (Carissimo). The for-profit prison system in the U.S has grown exponentially in the last half decade due to lawmakers and lobbyists who are cutting corners in the legislative process to make a fortune for their constituents.
In 1983, the CCA secured its first contract with the federal government. At that time, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now known as ICE) asked CCA to design, build and manage a facility for detaining illegal immigrants in Texas. The leadership of the CCA saw the rise in immigration as opportunity to establish the legitimacy of their company. After one year of operations, The Corrections Corporation of America offered to pay $250 million for a 99-year lease of the entire Tennessee state prison system. This symbolizes one of the first examples of how the Private Prison Industry was capable and willing to pay for policy change to grow their company.
Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee not only supported the privatization of prisons publically, he requested a special session of the Legislature to grant him authority to negotiate a contract with the company (Tolchin). A federal judge ordered Tennessee to stop admitting inmates to its overcrowded prisons and Gov. Alexander along with the CCA proposed their case stating “Its facility design and use of electronic surveillance mean it can operate larger prisons “with less staff than the public sector would have needed.
The year 1987 introduced a new lobbying group titled Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, later known as the GEO Group. Like CCA, the first contract the GEO group acquired was to run a federal immigration detention center. These two well-funded private prison organizations created the emergence of the American Legislative Exchange Council‘s political influence. The ALEC is “Comprised of nearly one-quarter of the country’s state legislators and stakeholders from across the policy spectrum, ALEC members represent more than 60 million Americans and provide jobs to more than 30 million people in the United States” (alec.org). The CCA later co-chairs several legislative propositions created by the ALEC. Examples of pivotal legislation that guaranteed the success and growth of both the lobbyists and legislators influences were the truth-in-sentencing and three-strikes legislation that help fuel the ’90s prison boom. Three Strikes policies mandate long sentences for certain habitual offenders, usually 25 years to life in prison for third-time violent offenders. Truth-in-sentencing requires violent offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before being considered for release (Chen). The American prison population continued to grow at a rapid rate throughout the late 20th century. Prison population continued to more than quadruple, from 278,141 to 1,244,554, between 1977 and 1997 (Blumstein and Beck). By 1997 CCA became a real estate investment trust for tax purposes with the justification that the company is deemed a part of the property industry in the U.S. As more money was guaranteed by the booming prison populations, new affiliates such as Prison Realty Trust surfaced, raising $447 million for a prison-buying spree. The for-profit prison system ran with a pitch insisting Private prisons offered as a cost-efficient alternative to state-run penitentiaries. Many legislators such as previously mentioned Gov. Lamar Alexander carried a message to the American people that the privatization of prisons were helping the states economies that adopted the newly expanding prison system. Lobbyist controlled media outlets to illustrate to the public the great successes the private prison reforms and legislative bills that had been passed created. Tucson Citizen completed a study that highlighted Arizona’s private prisons were costing money rather than saving (thinkprogress.org). The study concluded the state lost $3.5 million a by turning their inmates over to for-profit corporations. Close analysis of Arizona’s three oldest private prison contracts show the rate to hold one prisoner for one night has increased 13.9% since the contracts were awarded. Compared to the cost of state-run prisons, Arizona overpaid for its private prison beds by $10 million between 2008 and 2010 (thinkprogress.org). Legislature was well informed on how expensive the private prisons were and basically cut the corners of a law requiring corporations to show cost savings before receiving a contract. In 2012, the Legislature repealed the requirement entirely along with the requirement that the state conduct a review comparing the quality of private and public prisons.
The corruption and bribery that occurs in the congressional subcommittees and committees is derived from our elected official’s self-interests. Guaranteeing one’s re election into office is the main priority of all legislators. If the politicians supported and pushed for the reform demanded by lobbyists, guaranteed sufficient funding and political support from the leadership was given for their next campaign. The chronological timeline over the first ten years of for profit prisons is filled with private prison growth along with an increasing influence in Washington. In the year 1998 the Justice Department launched an investigation of a CCA prison in Youngstown, Ohio. The report was issued following several escapes, stabbings, and killings. In addition to finding inexperienced and poorly trained guards, the probe reveals that CCA took on maximum-security inmates at a facility designed for a medium-security population (justice.gov). This exposed the CCA showing the institutions weren’t properly staffed and operated. Protocols in place were unsafe and the media opened the discussion of these controversial findings. Public’s support in the company was shaken and this caused the CCA stock, once nearly $150 a share, to fall to 19 cents in only three years(motherjones). CCA was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2000 due to lawsuits, management problems and dwindling contracts. In 2011 the company reaped $162 million in net income(Shen). Federal contracts made up 43 percent of its profits, along with the rising immigrant detention centers expanding their monopoly like infrastructure. GEO, which cites the immigration agency as its largest client, saw its net income jump from $16.9 million to $78.6 million since 2000(thinkprogress.org).
By the year 2004 the number of private prison operations had increased beyond just the CCA and GEO. For example, Correctional Services Corporation (CSC) acquired a Juvenile facility. During only thirty years of operation, private prisons went from detaining only illegal immigrants to children as well. A trend of more Justice Department investigations compiling over the years led to discoveries of the shortcomings of these private prisons. One Justice Report in 2004 found a “disturbing degree” of physical abuse by staff and underreporting of violence among inmates in a Baltimore CSC ran institution. Rather than shut down the prison for these violations of law, the establishment allowed GEO to acquire CSA and continually run the prison with no reform or mandate.
Republican Ted Strickland introduced the Private Prison Information Act in 2005. This proposed bill would require private prisons holding federal inmates to comply with Freedom of Information Act. FOIA is a federal freedom of information law that allows for the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by the United States government(senate.gov). The Private Prison Information Act died in Congress; As have at least seven similar bills opposed by CCA and GEO influences in Washington. By 2007 CCA’s and GEO’s stock prices jump as both companies jockey to run the federal government’s expanding immigration detention centers(motherjones). Meanwhile, the ACLU settled a case against Immigration and Customs Enforcement in CCA Residential Center in Texas. Half the detainees were children; Prior to the settlement, inmates were required to wear prison uniforms and follow rules that limited the kid’s freedom to move around the facility. Ironically, the very organization that imprisoned children and violated basic human rights was being funded more than ever by our nation’s political leadership.
The private prison system has thrived through the violation of immigrants forced into immigration jails. In 2008, when The New York Times obtained and published a federal government list of such deaths, few facts were available regarding the people in such prisons. But behind the scenes, it is now clear, the deaths had already generated thousands of pages of government documents, including scathing investigative reports that were kept under wraps (Bernstein). This lack of evidence produced for the public highlights how officials in key positions use their role as overseers to cover up evidence of mistreatment. With the media having such little substance in regards to actual prison records, politicians can deflect scrutiny by the news media. The corruption exists within and outside of the private prison systems facilities. The Office of Professional Responsibility is a branch of the United States Department of Justice that is responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct involving Department attorneys that relate to the exercise of their authority to investigate, litigate or provide legal advice, as well as allegations of misconduct by law enforcement personnel(senate.gov). Over the course of their investigations the OPR has found medical personnel’s have falsified medication logs to show that the detainees receive treatments that never occurred. Prison economics drive immigration law reform across the nation. For example, the passing of the highly controversial Arizona Immigration Law which requires police to lock up anyone they stop who cannot show proof they entered the country legally was heavily influenced by the likes of CAA. The law could send hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to prison in a way never done before. And it could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in profits to private prison companies responsible for housing them (npr.org). ALEC membership organization of state legislators and powerful corporations and associations have strong ties with Arizona Senator Russell Pearce. The relationship consists of ALEC funding the reelection of Pearce in exchange for his support on their immigration reform. The senator has strong conservative ties with the Tea Party and expresses his views on immigration stating “People need to focus on the cost of not enforcing our laws and securing our border. It is the Trojan horse destroying our country and a republic cannot survive as a lawless nation” (npr.org).
The largest the largest private prison company in the country, CCA becomes the first private prison company to purchase a state facility, buying Ohio’s Lake Erie Correctional Institution in 2011. Elected officials proposed this action to raise money for the state. Gov. John Kasich alongside his corrections chief, who ironically was former the CCA Director Gary Mohr oversaw the entire process of the selling of prisons in Ohio. Mohr serves on the House Finance Committee and brought his department Kasich’s $120 billion all-funds budget proposal. The plan to sell five prisons and allow a private company to operate them was among the significant changes Kasich proposed last week to help offset an $8 billion budget deficit (Guillen). Congress is not the only home of the private prison systems influence within our government. The judicial branch has been infested with lobbyists whose dozens of bribes sway judges and chief of prisons decision making in regards to sending people to prison and input reforming the lucrative state prison contracts. For example, Pennsylvanian judge, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., and a colleague, Michael T. Conahan, appeared in federal court in Scranton. Both plead guilty to wire fraud and income tax fraud for taking more than $2.6 million in kickbacks to send teenagers to two privately run youth detention centers (Hamill)
The corrupt and broken legislative process in the United States has allowed several outside influences to pay for policy reform. The judicial and legislative branches are plagued with elected officials that are controlled by lobby groups such as CCA and GEO. Private prison owners have made millions through violating basic civil rights of immigrants specifically. The largest the largest private prison companies use their fortune to control political party leadership and change immigration laws, as we saw in Arizona. Overall the for-profit prison system has been exposed several times. Private prisons aren’t properly staffed, operated and protocols in place are unsafe. Though the public has plenty of evidence and reason to demand the shutdown of these prisons, these corporations have built a monopoly like empire and now control many aspects of our political and legislative processes.
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