Private Prisons: The Explosion

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

Released earlier this month, the ACLU’s report titled Banking on Bondage provides a detailed analysis of the connection between mass incarceration and the private prison industry.  The ACLU’s findings are highly relevant to one of our nation’s leading jailers –  the Lone Star State.  This three part blog series will summarize the three main parts of the report:  the private prison explosion; the private prison sales pitch; and the false promise of private prisons.

Mass incarceration makes no sense – it strains budgets, it unnecessarily deprives individuals of liberty, it needlessly breaks up families, and it fails to make us safer.  So, if society does not benefit then who does?  By following the money, one quickly finds that the private prison industry sure gets a sweet deal.  The growth of private prisons and skyrocketing incarceration rates have gone hand-in-hand over the last few decades.  A coincidence? We don’t think so.

A few facts that the report points out:

  • Between 1970 and 2005, the number of people incarcerated in the US grew by 700%.
  • The US has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners.
  • For profit prison growth went from 7,000 inmates in 1990 to 129,000 inmates in 2009 – that is a 1600% increase.

Incarceration rates started increasing with President Nixon’s War on Drugs.  Even though this “tough on crime” approach has proven to be very expensive and highly ineffective, many of the laws are still in effect.  The private prison industry works hard to keep it that way.  While prisons may be necessary to keep dangerous criminals from doing harm to others, they are quite often counterproductive when dealing with non-violent offenders.  And, prisons come at a cost.

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The GEO Group, the two largest private prison companies in the US, have combined annual revenues of $300 billion. Their chief executives rake in more than $3 million a year.  With profits like that, it is no wonder they fight to keep harsh sentencing laws, even if the laws harm our state’s economy and undermine public safety.  More prisoners and longer sentences reinforce the false perception of a need for more (private) prisons.  The report details how the industry influences public policy decisions through lobbying, offering financial incentives and campaign contributions, and controlling information.  Many of the resulting “tough on crime” policies have disastrous effects on society all while benefiting a small group of private prison executives.  Next week’s blog will analyze the private prison industry sales pitch.

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