by Jeremy Leaming
The failed “war on drugs” certainly helped the proliferation of for-profit prisons, but the federal government’s increasing reliance on many of the same companies to detain undocumented immigrants and others awaiting court resolutions is not only furthering private prison profits but the need for mass incarceration, a new report from The Sentencing Project reveals.
In “Dollars and Detainees: The Growth of For-Profit Prisons,” Cody Mason, a program associate for The Sentencing Project, reports that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) have turned to for-profit companies to detainee individuals while the courts decide their fates. ICE detains undocumented immigrants and the USMS, among other things, holds “all federal detainees from the time they enter federal custody until they are either acquitted or convicted,” Mason writes.
Both of those entities, Mason explains jump-started the for-profit prison industry. ICE’s predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service first contracted in 1987 with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Today CCA and the GEO Group are the nation’s “largest private prison companies.”
Mason’s report shows that from 2002 – 2011 ICE detainees in private facilities jumped by 208 percent and the number of USMS detainees in for-profit facilities rose by 355 percent.
“In contrast there was respective growth of 28 percent and 67 percent in the number of state and federal prisoners held in private facilities. As a result, the combined population of privately-held ICE and USMS detainees nearly equaled the number of federal prisoners in private facilities in 2010,” Mason writes.
ICE’s increased use of private detention facilities, not surprisingly, provided a big boost to the prison companies’ profits, a $5 billion industry. Mason notes that the private detention centers are run by “many of the same companies that own and manage private prisons, and that it is common for these facilities to house detainees for ICE and USMS alongside persons sentenced for criminal convictions.”
Private prison operators claim they run prisons and detention centers more efficiently and less expensively than the government. CCA’s website boasts that it benefits the nation by “protecting public safety, employing the best people in solid careers, rehabiliting inmates, giving back to communities, and bringing innovative security to government corrections – all while consistently saving hardworking taxpayers’ dollars.”
But as Mason, and many others have pointed out, private prison companies are actually all about making money.
Multiple reports, including The Sentencing Project’s “Too Good to be True: Private Prisons in America,” “have found that private prison companies have failed to provide services comparable to publicly-operated prisons, have an incentive to promote policies that continue America’s reliance on mass incarceration and oftentimes fail to provide promised financial benefits to through cost-savings and economic development.”
Mason also notes that numerous other reports show that these companies place an “emphasis on cutting costs to ensure profits,” which “can lead to understaffing and employees with less training, lower pay and benefits, and higher turnover rates. This has made the cases of violence, abuse, negligence, and substandard healthcare more common.”
Indeed The Times-Picayune in the spring provided a scathing look at Louisiana’s for profit prison system.
The state, the newspaper notes is the “world’s prison capital,” imprisoning more people per capita than any other state. As The New York Times Charles M. Blow noted, part of the reason for Louisiana’s obsession with imprisoning people has to do with profits. When the state was ordered by the government in the 1990s to reduce its burgeoning prisons, the state turned to privatization.
For the state’s prisons “to remain profitable,” Blow wrote, “the beds, which one prison operator in the series distastefully refers to as ‘honey holes,’ must remain full. That means that on an almost daily basis, local prison officials are on the phones bartering for prisoners with overcrowded jails in the big cities.”
As The Sentencing Project report helps to show, the increasing outsourcing of corrections work to private companies is not only an impediment to criminal justice reform, it is ruinous.