reviewed by John E. Dannenberg
In a classic case of "follow the money," The Institute On Money In State Politics (IMSP) reviewed influence-peddling by private prison corporations (and their leaders, lobbyists, and subcontractors) who made political contributions to curry favor for their firms -- leading inexorably to vast increases in the prison privatization business.
Although such private interests in 44 states gave politicians over $3.3 million between 2000 and 2004 (the study period), Policy Lock-Down focused on the top ten states.
Florida led the pack with $647,600 (almost 20% of the total) followed by Texas ($519,000) and New Jersey ($323,000). Six states logged no private prison contributions: Delaware, Iowa, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota and South Dakota. To insulate the real donors, most of the money given out passed through the hands of lobbyists. Popular targets for givers were states with tough-on-sentencing laws: $2.1 million went to 22 states with "three-strikes" laws, while only $1.2 million went to 22 states without such laws. Two-thirds of all monies went directly to political candidates, while one-third went to state political parties.
Two-thirds of the money for candidates supported incumbents, thus reducing the odds of a challenger to existing privatization contracts from gaining a toehold. Not surprisingly, the donations went to candidates avowing "tough-on-crime" agendas. One-third of the money went to gubernatorial candidates, where the power to propose budgets and set policy rests. Republican candidates gained 64% of all donations.
The intended influence was often not very disguised. In Florida, for example, private prison vendors lobbied for the elimination of an oversight committee responsible for policing contract bidding processes, hoping to avoid the reopening of bids for five private prisons whose contracts would thereby be subject to competition.
Arizona lobbyists donated funds to 29 of the 42 members of a committee in 2003 charged with considering increasing the number of private prison beds there. A vice-president of a private prison firm testified even though he stood to gain financially from the proposal.
Colorado initially took in prisoners from other states whose prisons were overcrowded. When Colorado prisoners filled their own prisons, private prison industrialists lobbied successfully to stop Colorado from sending its own prisoners out of state.
Texas continues to elect its representatives premised largely upon the state's tough-on-crime mantra. The private prison industry gives heavily to Texas' influential legislative leaders and committee members.
Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, shortly after election, sought ways to turn over government functions to private industries. Within months, he had done so for prison food and nursing services. He also contracted for the first private prison in the state.
Also shortly after being elected, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour pushed for private prisons as a money-saving proposition.
But money pressures notwithstanding, private prisons have not lived up to their billing as a cheaper and more cost efficient means of incarcerating offenders. Indeed, a 2005 Florida Department of Management Services study found no evidence that private prisons operated at a lower cost than state-run ones. The study also found inadequate oversight and misappropriation of funds.
In fact, private prisons (which do not employ union staff) have their critics in police and prison guard unions. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has sounded its opposition as well, citing problems that arise when profits compete with prisoners' needs. Faith-based organizations have argued that private prisons are simply a ruse to avoid dealing with crucial social justice issues.
Nonetheless, privatization continues to grow. Oregon stopped sending prisoners out of state after scandals and escapes in the 1990s, but now faces housing prisoners in county jail beds as a stopgap to its prison shortage. Hawaii paid $36 million to house 1,850 prisoners on the mainland in 2005. And a Salt Lake Tribune article criticized Utah proposals for privatization because it "profits from the misery of others." 8,000 of California's surplus prisoners are currently being farmed out to private prisons in six states.
The donors in the study period included Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a Tennessee firm claiming to manage 50% of all private prison beds in the United States. CCA gave $1.13 million in the study period, spanning 36 states. Florida-based GEO Group, Inc. (formerly Wackenhut), manages 36,000 beds worldwide. With a net income of $16.5 million on $614.5 million in revenue, GEO donated $880,261 in 19 states.
Third was Community Corrections Corp., a New Jersey company with 18 facilities in seven states, which gave $378,750 to political candidates.
Cornell Companies, based in Houston, Texas, runs 81 prisons in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Its donations totaled $184,983.
Correctional Services Corp. (CSC), which was acquired by GEO after the study period, oversaw 8,000 prisoners in six states. CSC ponied up $128,390 in seven states to buy influence. Civigenics, based in Marlboro, Massachusetts, houses 3,000 prisoners in 14 states, and provided $82,259 in donations. Utah-based Management and Training Corp. manages 9,000 beds in the western U.S. and Canada. It had contributions of $45,101 in six states. Three smaller firms, Maranatha Private Corrections (California), Minsec Corrections Corp. (Pennsylvania) and LCS Corrections Services (Louisiana) donated a total of $91,650. And not to be left out, subcontractors to the above firms, who provide construction, food service, and health care, contributed another $313,356.
Policy Lock-Down then goes on for 80 scintillating pages detailing the histories of privatization in the ten states, replete with horror stories of graft and corruption by the contracted firms. Plainly, these businesses are succeeding on the backs of prisoners, who predictably fail any chance at reformation where the jailor desires none. Indeed, this writer questions the very concept of private prisons, since it inherently pits profits from recurring incarceration against society's goal of reformation of prisoners. If, instead, incentives were paid for reducing recidivism, the graft and corruption that has historically attended both private and public prisons might at least be redirected at concomitant reductions in incarceration and crime. See: Policy Lock-Down, April 2006, The Institute On Money In State Politics, 833 North Last Chance Gulch, 2nd Floor, Helena, Montana, 59601, www.followthemoney.org. It is also available on the PLN website.
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