The Private Prison Industry on Tilt

Last month, I posted several times on the profit motive flow of the private prison industry.  To follow up here, nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman weighed in this week on the privatization of prisons (amongst other areas, including education) in the New York Times by describing the role of lobbyists in influencing and creating legislative policies that impact American lives. In his opinion piece Lobbyists, Guns and Money, Krugman details the activities of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), a self described non-partisan lobbying organization, and its massive emerging influence.  Krugman describes ALEC as follows:

“What is ALEC? Despite claims that it’s nonpartisan, it’s very much a movement-conservative organization, funded by the usual suspects: the Kochs, Exxon Mobil, and so on. Unlike other such groups, however, it doesn’t just influence laws, it literally writes them, supplying fully drafted bills to state legislators. In Virginia, for example, more than 50 ALEC-written bills have been introduced, many almost word for word. And these bills often become law.

Many ALEC-drafted bills pursue standard conservative goals: union-busting, undermining environmental protection, tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy. ALEC seems, however, to have a special interest in privatization — that is, on turning the provision of public services, from schools to prisons, over to for-profit corporations. And some of the most prominent beneficiaries of privatization, such as the online education company K12 Inc. and the prison operator Corrections Corporation of America, are, not surprisingly, very much involved with the organization.”

Based on the last sentence of Krugman’s description “And some of the most prominent beneficiaries of privatizations, such as . . . the prison operator Corrections Corporation of America, are, not surprisingly, very much involved with the organization,” he received a tense response letter from the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) trying to force a retraction for things that Krugman did not actually say.

The CCA claims that it does not, and never has lobbied for increasing prison sentences or developing new areas for detention (like criminalizing immigration). The CCA letter claims that “CCA does not and has not ever lobbied for or attempted to promote any legislation anywhere that affects sentencing and detention — under longstanding corporate policy.”

Krugman is dubious about this claim, as am I. CCA employs dozens of lobbyists and spends millions of dollars per year lobbying legislatures around the United States in connection with promoting its business interests. CCA was in the news just last month after it sent letters to 48 states offering to buy the state’s prisons in exchange for a 20 year agreement to pay CCA to warehouse the state’s prisoners and contractual agreement to keep the prisons filled at 90% capacity.

A private prison company contractually obligating a state to keep its prisons filled to 90% capacity seems to me to be an attempt to influence sentencing and detention policy for profit.

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10 Responses

  1. dre, The prison-industrial complex is one of the greatest injustices of our generation. Thanks for focusing your posts on this issue, but what should be the strategy against well-organized prison companies?

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    “The prison-industrial complex is one of the greatest injustices of our generation.”

    Because a war on drugs that imprisoned a terrifying fraction of our population would be so much better if the prisons they were warehoused in were government run?

    The problem here isn’t who’s running the prisons. It’s what’s illegal…

  3. Ken Rhodes says:

    @Brett: You make an important point about an important problem, but I don’t agree with your “either A or B” dichotomy. I think they are *both* problems.

  4. DS says:

    Interesting post. I, too, share Brett Bellmore’s concern though. Joshua Page’s recent book (The Toughest Beat, 2011, OUP) makes a compelling case that the California Correctional Peace Officers Association is a major lobbyist responsible for tough on crime laws. It seems like we should be just as skeptical of public sector prison employees as private ones. In other words, a return to a fully public program isn’t a silver bullet.

  5. JoeJP says:

    “The problem here isn’t who’s running the prisons. It’s what’s illegal.”

    It’s both. And, the prisons aren’t just going to hold the “wrong” type of criminals. Some prisoners are going to be held, only a minority in prison for drugs.

  6. I agree with JoeJP and Ken, and would emphasize the role of the “industry” in keeping our drug laws draconian: “Three strikes and you’re a life-long customer”

    So I ask again – solutions?

  7. andré douglas pond cummings says:

    great comments. thanks all.

    kevin, i agree that the incentives for imprisoning american citizens are now so perverse, that we are actually witnessing one of the great injustices of U.S. history when considering modern mass incarceration. and i do not make that statement lightly, when thinking through slavery, jim crow, american indian genocide, and the massive discriminations we’ve engaged in societally since the founding.

    a couple of thoughts: first, bernard harcourt has just released a really insightful book “the illusion of free markets” where he carefully traces the ways that we have adopted structural definitions for government’s proper role in capital markets and in penal policy making. he argues, and i agree with him, that we have adopted nonsensical constructions of “free markets” where government should play no role in economic market policy, when truly, our markets are far from free, and in neoliberal penality where government is meant to play a punitive role in prison policy, as if that is the true purpose of government’s role. these adoptions are illusory. harcourt calls for a massive reconstruction of the way that we think about and talk about economic market policy and prison penal policy in the united states. i recommend the read.

    second, i think that shareholder activism holds promising potential for the specific problem of the private prison corporation issue. in a future post, i will note where several church pension funds are withdrawing their massive investment positions from companies like the cca and the geo group who profit from imprisoning human beings.

  8. Debbie says:

    I had a client who was sentenced to one of these private hellholes. He had had a knee removed because of a bone problem, and the artificial knee had to be removed due to an infection. When he was in DC, he had a motorized wheel chair. It didn’t fit in the DC jail, so he was given a walker. When he got to the hellhole, his walker was taken away from him.
    I cannot imagine anything sicker than privatising prisons. Prisoners lose a lot of rights, so it isn’t as though a lawyer can just go into court to have their rights and necessities restored to them.

  9. Frank Pasquale says:

    Kevin, I think dre’s points above are good. I also agree with Michelle Alexander that it will take a social movement to take on this injustice, much like the Civil Rights movement.

    My main fear now is that technologized crowd control and stigmatizing reputational systems will raise the cost of “passive resistance” to unacceptable levels, or simply disappear it. I therefore think that part of the solution must involve statutory or constitutional level prohibitions on certain forms of crowd control, arrests of protesters, and even the use of arrests for protests in reputation systems that are commonly deployed to deny future opportunities.

    Of course, it is no surprise that the current Supreme Court jumped at the chance to deny, say, a strip-searched, protesting nun (an actual example from Breyer’s dissent) the right to challenge her treatment. I am afraid that the same Court would probably have little problem with the use of sound cannons, heat guns (which would gradually raise body temperature), pepper spray, nerve-damaging zip-ties, or microdrones, to “deal with” protesters. But if these methods become widespread, there is probably little chance of ever turning public attention to the injustices dre describes.

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