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For-profit prisons are bad public policy and contrary to Arizona values

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.

Dianne Post

Dianne Post

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.  


  1. Great article – hitting all the high points and low points of how privatization of prisons has evolved in a solid school to prison pipeline designed to incarcerate those who are illiterate, drop out of school, get into trouble as a juvie and end up in adult prisons doing long term time via biased criminal justice practices that targets growth rather than shrinkage of prison beds and operations.

  2. So called “public/private partnerships” are just another name for fascism.

  3. Just one question: In speaking about justice, mercy, compassion , redemption and forgiveness — where exactly are those qualities present in the state-operated prisons? Over the past 35 years of prison operation history in Arizona, the true horror stories involving corruption, inmate deaths, illegal sexual conduct by staff with inmates, treatment of mentally ill prisoners in inhumane ways, etc. have all occurred in the state-operated prisons. All the focus on attempting to rid ourselves of private prisons has left the impression that — somehow — we’d have a humane, functioning rehabilitative system in place. Not so. Not so at all.

    Private prisons should not be granted contracts that include guaranteed occupancy, no matter what. Instead, they should operate on performance bonds and incentives that allow them to “earn” their “clients” by producing better and reduced recidivism rates than the state operated prisons produce. But our mailbag which is filled with about 300-400 letters/month from prisoners located all over the state in both publicly operated and private prisons tells us that GENERALLY SPEAKING private prisons in Arizona that house state-sentenced prisoners are safer, better run, more calm environments to live in, have newer infrastructure, better food and more programs. Folks, there is a middle ground on this issue.

  4. To Donna Hamm,

    The concept of private prisons is at issue. It is built on a foundation of corruption and, as Ms. Post eloquently set forth, slavery.

    You are certainly correct that eliminating private prisons will not solve all the problems. Yet, given that your mailbag (of letters from current inmates) is likely not a scientific sample of individuals who can articulate the specific differences comparing each type of facility, your inference/claim that private prisons are better seems not to be founded on rational reasoning.

    Underfunded correctional facilities will never be anything other than a scourge on our society. The notion that correctional facilities in Arizona have any sort of focus on correction (rather than permanent isolation from society) is also false, for whomever may hold such an illusion.

    The bottom line is that the path Arizona government has been on for more than two decades, egregious and extremely acute underfunding of all state government functions and institutions, has Arizona in a downward spiral from which there is and will be no escape until THAT course (underfunding) is dramatically changed.

    Until then, eliminating the private prison industrial complex remains a reasonable and legitimate objective.

  5. middlegroundprisonreform

    It’s always revealing when someone expresses strong and purportedly informed opinions, but won’t sign their name to their message, especially when the message is directed to one person. #anonymouscriticismdoesn’tcount

  6. I’m just about certain now that these private firms gave cocktail dinners to the people who drafted Arizona Proposition 102 of 1996. This provision, which unfortunately passed, now requires that any would-be juvenile who, being at least 15 at the time of commission, must be tried & sentenced as an adult for any charge of homicide (including manslaughter, I think), sexual assault, or shooting at a building knowing or having reason to know that it’s occupied. These big companies where mostly likely aware of the virtual impossibility of privatizing reformatories, as well as the fact that no one’s ever there for life. So, they came up with this conniving solution that remains today.

  7. I have an acquaintance that spent time in a state run facility and then at Kingman. He had meaningful work in Florence and no work in Kingman. I think he would beg to differ with Judge Hamm.

  8. To Middle Ground Prison Reform:

    Google Arizona Eagletarian. The Capitol Times newsroom knows me. Many people at the capitol know me. I’m not anonymous.

  9. It is reasonable to say that Ms. D. Hamm is correct in her evaluation of state run prisons – if anyone in AZ is qualified to make such a comparison it is her; she deals with the negativity daily and has strong ties to communicate all issues brought forth by the inmate population. Her comment was based on historical facts and history that has been revealed by either litigation or summaries written on disturbance conclusions. Once the Arizona citizenry opens their eyes and see the strategy here to underfund state prisons as well as understaff state prisons, you can see how they fail to do their statutory responsibilities and mission statement. There is no doubt about failures on both sides, but the biggest failure is Arizona’s ability to plan and forecast less prison beds, less prison costs and more reforms towards alternative sentencing and community corrections that keeps families together and reduces the costs of operations and programming for the taxpayers. When other states are proving this to be effective – Arizona bucks the trend merely based on political fear mongering that there will be more crime and less public safety which is the farthest from the truth as the correlation between time spent inn prison is not a aggravating factor or crimes committed – it is however, gold for private prisons and weak and ignorant lawmakers, district attorneys and others who advocate ridiculous sentences and thrive off the fear they produce with false data to justify their actions or in this case, lack of actions.

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