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The Prison Payoff: The Role of Politics & Private Prisons in the Incarceration Boom

by Brigette Sarabi and Edwin Bender

The popularity of the term "prison-industrial complex" in recent years, and especially since the groundbreaking Critical Resistance conference in Berkeley in September 1998, has produced a few critics who wonder if "prison-industrial complex" is an accurate description of today's prison/policing/judicial apparatuses.

The debate centers on whether analogies to the military-industrial complex are useful. Some argue that the MIC is so much larger, both in real dollars and as a percentage of the GDP, that the PIC pales in comparison. Others point out that those MIC expenditures paid for a standing army, bases around the world, a huge research and development budget which allowed for the post-WWII expansion of U.S. higher education and spun off hundreds of non-military industries, and industries for aircraft and computers which employed tens of thousands of high-paid engineers and unionized assembly workers. The PIC, in comparison, generates relatively little economic activity outside the prisons themselves.

But for all those differences, it appears that the MIC and PIC do have at least one thing in common: a breakneck expansion fueled by private corporations and public bureaucracies intent on growth. And growth for the PIC has meant more felonies, longer sentences and more parole violations. What critics of the PIC argue is that the changes in public policies guiding law enforcement, prison administration, etc. have been driven in large part by the desire of the corporations for profit, and the public bureaucracies (both the departments of correction and the guards' unions) for more power and bigger budgets.

The Prison Payoff gives us a compelling view of how the desire for profit is driving policy on criminal justice. This succinct 40-page report argues that "a major factor in the current incarceration boom is the influence of private prison corporations with vested financial interests in increasing rates of imprisonment." [Emphasis added.]

Private prison corporations currently own 130,000 prison beds in the United States. In 1987 they owned 3,122. Their growth strategy has had two parts: 1) to push the privatization of public services, using the argument that private industry can do anything cheaper, better and faster than a government bureaucracy; and 2) to increase the raw materials of their industry by pushing for longer sentences, more stringent parole and more criminal laws. "Influencing elected officials at the state level has become a key business strategy."

One of their primary tools has been the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, one of the masterminds of the New Right. ALEC is an association of state officials (more than 40 percent of state legislators are members), which generates model legislation for its member legislators to take back to their home states. The financial backers of ALEC often draft the legislation, which in the case of ALEC's Criminal Justice Task Force includes the Corrections Corporation of America (the largest private prison corporation in the U.S.), Wackenhut Corrections, and Sodexho Marriott Services (the largest stockholder in CCA). Among the pieces of model legislation drafted by the ALEC Criminal Justice Task Force are various "Truth-in-Sentencing" laws (now in effect in 25 states), Habitual Offender/Three Strikes laws (11 states), provisions for Private Corrections Facilities (4 states) and Prison Industries (which mandate that prisoners must work for private corporations) (1 state _ Mississippi).

To give some idea how active these corporations are, the industry's contributions to state candidates in 1998 were only slightly lower than the contributions given by the National Rifle Association.

Over half the prison industry's donations went to one state _ California _ where so far, they have only been able to open one private federal prison (California City) and some 500-bed Community Corrections Centers. Currently the federal government is accepting bids for new prisons for immigrants in California, Arizona and Texas. Recipients of private prison contributions in California are a who's who of Sacramento: Cruz Bustamante ($31,996), Gray Davis ($25,000), Liz Figueroa ($21,000), Betty Karnette ($20,500), Richard Polanco ($17,000), and many more.

Why haven't those contributions led to more private prisons in the state? The Prison Payoff points out that some payoffs come out of the public sector as well. In California, the CCPOA, the prison guards' union, gave more than $2 million in direct campaign contributions in 1998, and the Los Angeles Times estimates that they spent twice that if contributions to PACs and independent expenditures are included.

The Prison Payoff ends with an interview with Steve Erickson of the Citizen's Education Project in Utah about the successful grassroots campaign to stop private prison expansion in rural towns in Utah.

It's clear from reading The Prison Payoff that criminal justice policy is being set, prisons are being built, and tens of thousands more lives ruined by unnecessary prison sentences so that corporations can increase profit, bureaucracies can grow larger, and guards' unions can get richer and more powerful. This booklet is a clear and powerful tool to help show the public what is really fueling our incarceration boom.

The Prison Payoff is available from: Western Prison Project, PO Box 40085, Portland, Oregon 97240. The Western Prison Project's telephone number is (503) 335-8449. Or, on the web at:

A single copy of The Prison Payoff is $5.00. Bulk discounts are available.

[This review was originally published by California Prison Focus, a nonprofit organization dedicated to identifying, monitoring and ending the human rights violations in California prisons.]

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