Private Prisons: How the Industry Sells Such a Bad Product

November 21st, 2011 Posted in Prison Reform, Privatization of Prisons, Uncategorized
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By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

There is no evidence that increased criminal penalties and stiffer sentences benefit society or lower crime rates.  In fact, as Texas has shifted away from incarcerating non-violent offenders, serious crimes have declined.  This is something the private prison industry doesn’t want the public to know and the industry has developed ways both to advocate for locking up more people for longer periods of time and for convincing some lawmakers that private prisons are the best place to put these prisoners.

The ACLU Banking on Bondage report dedicates a section to exploring how the industry markets its product.  As the report explains, not every private prison company is guilty of all these tactics, but overall the impact is powerful enough to undermine smart-on-crime solutions to over incarceration.

  • Questionable Financial Incentives

Money is power, and the report cites instances of legislators and other government officials accepting financial incentives from the private prison industry. For example, in Pennsylvania, a county judge who was responsible for skyrocketing rates of imprisoned juveniles was found guilty of racketeering, money laundering, and conspiracy in connection with his acceptance of $1 million from the developer of a private juvenile facility that was benefiting from increased juvenile sentencing.

  • The Revolving Door Between Public and Private Corrections

A large number of private prison industry employees were previously employed by state corrections.  As the report documents, this has resulted in some private facilities not being scrutinized by the government departments that are charged with overseeing them.   In one of the more egregious cases the report highlights, a West Texas juvenile facility run by The GEO Group, Inc was awarded a 97.7% grade for overall compliance. An independent review of the facility found that “cells were filthy, smelled of feces and urine, and were in need of paint…[and] water leaks [were] numerous throughout the facility, creating an unsanitary and unsafe environment for all youth and staff.”  The independent auditors actually left the facility with large amounts of fecal material on their shoes.  The review found that some of the state-employed monitors of this facility had recently worked for GEO before changing positions.

  • The Private Prison Lobby

The private prison industry heavily lobbies both state and federal governments.  For example, the report finds that between 1999 and 2009, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison corporation, spent over $18 million on federal lobbying alone.   Many companies also hire lobbyists to influence various state governments. Furthermore, the report shows that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that brings together state legislators and private corporations, drafted successful legislation designed to promote mass incarceration at the state level. CCA had a major role in the development of this legislation.

  • Campaign Contributions

It doesn’t stop with lobbying – the private prison industry spends massive amounts of money on campaign contributions.  The report shows that since 2000, the leading private prison companies have contributed more than $6 million to candidates for state office.  CCA and GEO also have their own political action committees.

  • Control of Information

Maintaining a positive public image is of utmost importance to any successful industry and the private prison industry is no different. They have well-done websites that highlight their “good” work and hire communications firms to write puff pieces that highlight awards, charity events, and a shining (but not representative) example of how they care about the well-being of prisoners. Not surprisingly, negative reports – about cases of sexual abuse or violence in facilities, for example – rarely get communicated to the public. Furthermore, private prisons are not held to the same open government standards as their public competitors, which means that it can be near impossible to get information about what is actually going on behind private prison walls. CCA has even blocked information from a group of concerned shareholders.

It is incredible that a policy so important to society – how we deal with offenders – is shaped more by the power of money, lobbying, and public relations than justice or community standards. Next week’s blog on the Banking on Bondage report will examine the false claims of cost savings and safety promises the private prison industry uses to sell its wares.

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