The history of private sector involvement in corrections is a bleak, well documented tale of inmate abuse and political corruption with roots in slavery. In Worse than Slavery, David M. Oshinsky outlined the system of Jim Crow established after the Civil War. He concluded that for-profit prison systems inevitably become slave camps. It was the prisoner himself who was the item of commerce. The same is true today.
In Slavery by Another Name, Douglas Blackmon chronicles the re-enslavement of Blacks by for-profit prisons from the Civil War to World War II. By 1877, every former confederate state but Virginia leased convicts and 90% of those traded were Black. Southern sheriffs and deputies received no regular salaries but made their money by selling convicts and thus had a financial incentive to arrest. In 2010, Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness stripped bare the fact that our correctional system constitutes a continuation of slavery.
By the 1920s, for-profit prisons disappeared but re-emerged when municipal and state governments began to contract with private firms in the mid-1980s. In 1979, the INS had begun contracting with private firms to run detention centers for suspected undocumented immigrants. Nearly half of immigrant detainees are held in for-profit prisons. Despite the protests of many, privatization has continued apace since then. Arizona is a dubious “leader” in funneling money to for-profit prisons.
The for-profit prisons have become very prolific lobbyists, shoveling more than $10 million to candidates since 1989 and have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying. GEO Group alone reported $650,000 in federal lobbying expenses in 2014. In addition, they spent over $5.7 million on state and local political contributions between 2003 and 2014, according to data compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The strategy has worked. The for-profit prisons income more than doubled between 2000 and 2010 and they now take home $3.3 billion tax dollars in annual revenues.
Profit and greed remain the primary motives. According to the Justice Policy Institute, for-profit prison companies have had either influence over or helped to draft legislation such as “three-strikes” and “truth-in-sentencing,” both of which have driven up incarceration rates.
The GEO Group’s 2014 annual report warns that their profitability may decline if they are not able to activate inactive beds at idle facilities, maintain or increase occupancy rates, or if there is an increase in unreimbursed labor rates. In other words, they want more prisoners i.e. more crime, more futures destroyed, more families decimated, more communities torn apart, and they don’t want to have to pay prisoners for their work.
The goal of profits over people is further illustrated at the ICE detention camps. GEO Group runs the facility in Karnes City, Texas, to hold refugee mothers and children who escaped from war torn countries were seeking asylum. The women in that facility, as in others where similar refugees are held, complained about the conditions and treatment – immigration violation is a civil offense and the detainees should not be treated like prisoners. In April 2015, 78 refugee mothers in Karnes staged a hunger strike in protest.
By the end of the month, three mothers filed a lawsuit seeking class status and alleging that GEO fired all of the women who participated in the hunger strike from their jobs, falsified charges of insurrection against them, and put three that they identified as leaders into solitary confinement.
Complaints of abusive treatment had been made in June 2014 to Department of Homeland Security by several organizations on behalf of 116 persons who experienced abuse and mistreatment while in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In August 2014, the ACLU and several other legal organizations requested that the IACHR hold a thematic hearing on the treatment of the refugees.
For-profit prisons are bad public policy and contrary to Arizona values. A broad coalition of policy and religious groups urged governors to reject a CCA offer to purchase state prisons in 2011. Religious groups argued that the principles of mercy, forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation are largely absent from the for-profit prison industry, and that the proposal was an invitation to fiscal irresponsibility, prisoner abuse and decreased public safety.
In 2012, the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits of the United Methodist Church withdrew nearly $1 million in stocks from CCA and the GEO Group because, based on their beliefs, they did not want to profit from the business of incarcerating others. One of the major objections against for-profit prisons is that, unlike government prisons, they have no incentive to rehabilitate prisoners because for-profit prisons are in the business of keeping people incarcerated. Locking up people for profit is not only inefficient and ineffective but also immoral and a violation of fundamental human rights.
-Dianne Post is the legal redress chair for the Maricopa County NAACP.