Slammers for cash

The ACLU reports (November 2011) on the prison for profit industry.

The imprisonment of human beings at record levels is both a moral failure and an economic one — especially at a time when more and more Americans are struggling to make ends meet and when state governments confront enormous fiscal crises. This report finds, however, that mass incarceration provides a gigantic windfall for one special interest group — the private prison industry — even as current incarceration levels harm the country as a whole. While the nation’s unprecedented rate of imprisonment deprives individuals of freedom, wrests loved ones from their families, and drains the resources of governments, communities, and taxpayers, the private prison industry reaps lucrative rewards. As the public good suffers from mass incarceration, private prison companies obtain more and more government dollars, and private prison executives at the leading companies rake in enormous compensation packages, in some cases totaling millions of dollars.

Wouldn’t you think we – as a nation – could manage to figure all that out and do better? I would. Other countries do, why can’t we? Is it solely because our politics is so dependent on money for campaigns run on advertising and thus so corrupt?

The United States imprisons more people — both per capita and in absolute terms — than any other nation in the world, including Russia, China, and Iran. Over the past four decades, imprisonment in the United States has increased explosively, spurred by criminal laws that impose steep sentences and curtail the opportunity to earn probation and parole. The current incarceration rate deprives record numbers of individuals of their liberty, disproportionately affects people of color, and has at best a minimal effect on public safety. Meanwhile, the crippling cost of imprisoning increasing numbers of Americans saddles government budgets with rising debt and exacerbates the current fiscal crises confronting states across the nation.

Leading private prison companies essentially admit that their business model depends on high rates of incarceration. For example, in a 2010 Annual Report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company, stated: “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by . . . leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices . . . .”

Just as the demand for potato chips could be adversely affected by people learning to eat more sensibly, or the demand for alcohol could be adversely affected by people learning to drink more moderately, or the demand for cigarettes could be adversely affected by people deciding they don’t want bad lungs after all. So be it. We shouldn’t keep doing bad things simply because they’re profitable for a few people (or a lot of people).

Certain private prison companies employ shrewd tactics to obtain more and more government contracts to incarcerate prisoners. In February 2011, for example, a jury convicted former Luzerene County, Pennsylvania Judge Mark Ciavarella of racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, and money laundering conspiracy in connection with payments received from a private prison developer. Tactics employed by some private prison companies, or individuals associated with the private prison industry, to gain influence or acquire more contracts or inmates include: use of questionable financial incentives; benefitting from the “revolving door” between public and private corrections; extensive lobbying; lavish campaign contributions; and efforts to control information.

So the corruption is indeed a big part of it, which I already knew. But – stop and think, citizens and legislators!




  1. trog69 says

    Every time I read about a judge or politician accused of taking bribes, I always wonder what happens to the individuals who offer up the cash/assets in the first place? Do they just go on their merry way, confident that some other corrupt official will fill in for the schmuck that got caught?

  2. Blanche Quizno says

    Yay capitalism!! The Free Market FTW!!! Go, private enterprise! JOB CREATORS!!! Privatize! Privatize! Privatize! Everything should be profit-oriented – that’s how you get efficiency and productivity, folks!

    Oh, and what capitalist society can truly prosper without a slave class? Prisoners have always served THAT function – nothing’s changed there. Now, the US can entice companies that capriciously and greedily off-shored their operations with promises of prison labor costing as little as 35¢ per hour. See, government-run prisons pay at least a few dollars an hour, which gives prisoners incentive to work, because then they can send a nice little check home to their families every month. Under the private prison slave-labor scenario, they don’t earn enough to make doing the work worthwhile, so they’re threatened with solitary confinement and reduction in what small amenities are available that make their lives just bearable (TV, working out, reading material), if they don’t work. I’ve seen communiqués promising companies a captive workforce that never calls in sick.

    THIS is what is driving the surge in private prisons. Slave labor.

  3. Blanche Quizno says

    In case I didn’t make it clear, the US government is attempting to lure off-shored production facilities’ companies into returning to use slave-labor for even less than they’re paying off-shore, plus no transportation/customs/import costs! And what has made this lucrative offer possible? The surge in private prisons.

  4. Shatterface says

    We have more and more criminal offences, with harsher and harsher sentences, lower and lower standards of evidence required, and less and less funding available for the defence.

    And that’s just in the UK; America is really fucked.,

    I’ve worked with ex-offenders and the major cause of re-offending is the damage prison sentences cause. At the very least ex-offenders will find it difficult to find a job; at worst they are mentally damaged, homeless, alienated from society and more educated in the criminal arts than when they went inside.

  5. Blanche Quizno says

    Compare prisons there and in the US, where punishment is the be-all and end-all, to the philosophy of prisons in Norway:

    The prison part starts at 4:10, but the entire thing is terrific – complete with 1960s-ish soundtrack!!

    There’s also a several-second background starting about 1:43.

  6. says

    To be fair, the Bastøy prison is unusual even by Norwegian standards. People typically spend the final parts of a long(ish) sentence there, but it’s not for all long time prisoners. They get sent there, I imagine, partly for good behaviour but more importantly, if there is evidence that it will improve their chances at getting reintegrated into society. It does seem to work quite well.

  7. chigau (違う) says

    Ophelia Benson #7 & #8
    Whatever it was, you should delete all related comments, too.
    Even this one.

  8. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    Ugh. I’ve always considered this one of the absolute worst forms of corruption. Paying legislators to make more crimes punishable by prison time in order to increase profits is the very definition of vile and reprehensible.

  9. Blanche Quizno says

    Ophelia, I’m sorry. My friend told me that, and I have few sources where I have access to real live Norwegians who might provide the Norwegian perspective on what I hear here in the US. I did not mean any insult or rudeness – I was simply trying to verify a tale I’d been told. I would have liked very much for Harald to set me straight that what I was recounting wasn’t normal by Norwegian standards, so that I could have communicated back to my friend that HER friend hadn’t been entirely factual in her account.

    Sorry, everybody – sorry, Harald. I meant no offense. My bad – apologies all around.

    Back to the topic – there are some societal functions that should NEVER be privatized. Privatization, by definition, involves profits, which means that profits are going to drive policy. In functions where we have a vulnerable, powerless population, privatization should be forbidden – schools, prisons, juvenile detention centers, hospitals, mental health. I’m sure you can think of others. That there are people profiting off such populations is appalling and reprehensible. If their own adminstrators’ innate sense of fair play and understanding of appropriate behavior can’t motivate them toward proper policies – and all accounts show that this doesn’t happen – then these functions need to be nationalized and run independent of profit-mongering private business.

  10. Blanche Quizno says

    Btw, if anyone is interested in the answer to my (now deleted) question, which I asked on a different forum as well, it can be found about 8 page-downs into the Comments section here:

    The Norwegian I asked there didn’t seem the least offended… 🙂

    How is one to find out specifics about another’s culture if one cannot ask?

  11. John Morales says

    Blanche Quizno @14,

    Privatization, by definition, involves profits […]

    You are mistaken, and therefore using that as a premise makes for an unsound argument.

  12. Pen says

    According to Marx, a capitalist economy was, by definition, one without slavery. By that definition, we are in post-capitalist economies, increasingly dependent on unpaid and forced labour which we just don’t choose to call slavery.

  13. says

    Blanche, I am not offended either, at least not much so. But this is Ophelia’s space, and she gets to decide what is rude and what is not here, regardless of what you or I think. Anhow, the question is quite tangential to the topic of the present blog post, so I’ll refrain from answering it in detail. However, I will tell you this: All legal residents of Norway have exactly the same health benefits, and are (or should be) treated exactly the same. Citizenship does not enter into the picture. (My wife is a US citizen, so I know first hand of what I speak.) Also, Norway is not perfect. For example have racism and misogyny just like everyone else, though we like to think we have less of it. And we did produce one of the worst mass murderers in history recently …

    Back on topic, I do find it mindboggling that the prison population of the United States is pretty close to the entire population of Norway. Imagine the reaction if you tried imprisoning an entire nation!

  14. says

    Nice job, Blanche.

    I didn’t say anything about “offended.” I said your comment was rude. You had to derail the thread some more by making an issue of it, so ok, I’ll tell you why it was rude.

    First of all, the derailment was rude.

    Second, it’s just weird and gauche and rude to pounce on someone of nationality X in order to ask 3 general questions about X.

    Third, it’s rude to all the other readers, to me, to Harald – it’s just obnoxious. You made it all the more obnoxious by making an issue of it.


  15. Decker says

    “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by . . . leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices . . . .”

    Sounds like he wants to transform the entire judiciary into an arm of the prison industry.

    Convictions should be based on prison vacancy rates.

  16. says

    I suppose I could just start a thread for off-topic comments and conversation. I’ve thought of doing that once or twice but figured it would just be sad, because I don’t have PZ’s eleventy million readers, so it would just lie there pathetically. That’s what will happen, but I guess I could give it a shot.

  17. says

    I haven’t been following the comment threads here much, so I don’t know if this sort of derailing happens a lot. But I imagine that people have more time and inclination for off-topic discussions on the weekend, so if you want to try it, I would suggest posting on a somewhat frivolous topic on Fridays, with an invitation to use the thread for whatever people feel like talking about. If it’s not a great success, you could just discontinue the practice. (But frivolous posts have some value in their own right, if not too frequent. They help us unwind.)

    By the way, I was wrong earlier: The US prison population is only about half the population of Norway. But the graphs on the Wikipedia page about it is astounding.

  18. yahweh says

    @Shatterface #4 your mention of re-offending is interesting to me. There is always heated and half-baked debate about the purposes of prison. People shy away from discussing the precise nature of the punishment but the question of rehabilitation raises particularly ignorant passions. Some people get quite angry and think that it’s all just wish washy liberal idealism, that convicts never change (for the better), or should change themselves without any help (after all, no one helped me, etc.).

    But I’ve never met anyone who thought prison could not make people worse. And in a private prison system, recidivism has to be genuinely lucrative. Not a societal problem, but a business model.

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