“[The Abolition of private prisons] is a cornerstone of our collective work to put justice back into the so-called criminal justice system.” This bold statement made in 2003 by the 215th General Assembly (2003) is still resonant over a decade later as the U.S. continues to invest heavily in private prisons. Despite documented human rights abuses and fiscal mismanagement, there are nearly twice the number of federal prisoners incarcerated in private facilities today as there were in 2001. The massive transfer of taxpayer dollars to the coffers of private prison operators has broken state budgets, torn families apart, and has failed to make our communities measurably more secure. Why, then, are we investing in for-profit prisons at unprecedented rates? Part of the answer lies in the substantial power and influence accrued to private prison operators by lavish campaign contributions and lobbying efforts. In order to renew our democracy and reform our criminal justice system, we must sever the link between campaign finance and the privatization of the prison industry.
Today, the U.S. incarcerates 2.1 million people at any given time; according to California Prison Focus, “no other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens.” Over the past 40 years, our prison population has grown exponentially due in part to a strict punitive measures enacted as part of the War on Drugs in the 1980’s which imposed mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. As social programs were systematically stripped and city infrastructure left to crumble, the forgotten residents of many inner cities faced intense scrutiny for rising crime rates and drug use. Although this social injustice can be traced back to historical disinvestment and the outcome of legacies of racism in communities of color, the state response was to criminalize the drug user. As described by activist and intellectual Angela Davis, “We began to see the prison emerge as a major institution to address the problems that were produced by the deindustrialization, lack of jobs, less funding into education, lack of education, the closedown of systems that were designed to assist people who had mental and emotional problems.”
As a result of the crackdown on crime, prison populations and budgets began to swell in the early 1980’s and a faction of enterprising prison administrations saw an opportunity to privatize incarceration, thereby making it profitable. Their pitch was that the private sector could warehouse inmates at a fraction of the cost (this has since proved to be untrue in most cases) of public prisons, which was an appealing argument to cash and capacity-strapped states. Since that time, corporations have reaped huge profits from prison construction, management, and from the provision of subcontracted services to prisoners (food, health care, pay phones); the market for calls made from prison pay phones alone is estimated at $1 billion a year. Yet another source of profit is prison labor; a wide variety of companies—including such familiar ones as Victoria’s Secret, Dell, Motorola, and Microsoft—have taken advantage of the low cost, and armed supervision, of prison labor. The success of prison privatization was no mere accident; it was a bitter cocktail of conservative, tough-on-crime ideology and enterprising private prison barons who sought to cement the demand for their services in the rule of law.
Since 2000, the three largest private prison companies—CCA, GEO and Cornell Companiesi—have contributed $835,514 to federal candidates, including Senators and Members of the House of Representatives. Giving to state level politicians during the last five election cycles was much higher: $6,092,331. Data maintained by the National Institute on Money in State Politics also reveal the following about private prison campaign contributions: Between 2003 and 2011, CCA contributed to over 600 state candidates, and GEO contributed to over 400. Both corporations have established their own Political Action Committees (PACs). These companies backed a high proportion of candidates who ultimately won elections, which may indicate a strategy of focusing contributions on candidates likely to wield power, not a comprehensive partisan agenda.
Examples of private prison contracts awarded in the wake of private-prison funded campaigns riddle the landscape of electoral politics, and are not corralled on one side of the aisle.
- Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (R) accepted at least $60,000 from people directly connected to the Corrections Corporation of America, and Arizona has lead the country in the expansion and privatization of detention centers for undocumented immigrants.
- An examination of campaign finance records shows that GEO Group gave over $11,000 in contributions directly to the campaigns of 14 of the 20 members of the Florida state Budget Committee that approved a massive prison privatization bill, by a vote of 14-4. Since 2006, GEO Group has spent a total of $1.3 million in campaign contributions in Florida alone and has been rewarded with hearty new contracts for prison healthcare.
- In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown (D) of California received $54,000 from GEO for his reelection campaign. As reported in Truthout, in April 2014, California subsequently contracted with GEO Group to open a 260-bed women’s prison. The contract allows GEO to double the number of beds, potentially increasing its four-year revenue from $38,132,640 to $66,394,276 in California.
The influence of corporate dollars is evident not only in allotment of federal and state contracts, but in the crafting of legislation itself. One of the primary tools of the private prison sector is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which is a collection of about 2000 legislators and corporate leaders. They meet once a year to draft model legislation intended for introduction in state houses around the country.
The ALEC yearly meeting, attended by Arizona lawmakers and CCA executives, produced the language for Arizona Senate Bill 1070 which required police to detain anyone suspected of being undocumented. Such detentions led to a swelling demand for detention centers, and a predictable call by Arizona legislators to build more detention facilities.
It is a sly relationship between politicians and corporate executives. Elected officials are careful not to exchange contracts for exact dollar amounts, only to align their platform with business priorities and create opportunities to expand the domain of prison privatization. As long as politicians privilege the demands of this industry over the needs of their own constituents there can be no justice in the United States. And without justice, there can be no peace.
Originally from Boulder, Colorado, Nora Leccese graduated from the University of Colorado in 2014 with a degree in economics and a minor in ethnic studies with a focus on community leadership. Nora helped found Boulder Food Rescue, a national organization that uses bicycle power to redistribute produce that would otherwise go to waste from grocery stores to homeless, food insecure, and low-income individuals. She has conducted research on worker owned cooperatives in Argentina and was a lead organizer in a campaign to divest Colorado University from the fossil fuel industry. Nora is currently serving the policy placement of her Emerson Hunger Fellowship in the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness (OPW), in Washington, DC. In her capacity in the OPW, she works to increase awareness of the root causes of poverty and to provide resources to congregations who want to deepen their knowledge about access to education, mass incarceration, and economic inequality.