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Contributions to California Politicians Rewarded with Lucrative Private Prison Contracts

In politics, sometimes a little monetary grease goes a long way. No doubt, that’s why Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest private prison operator, based in Nashville, Tennessee, has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to lawmakers in California. Although it probably could never be proven, that is also likely why CCA was rewarded with a contract worth almost $700 million to house California prisoners in the company’s out-of-state facilities.

Derek Cressman, Regional Director of State Operations for Common Cause, a government watchdog group, put it this way: “The fact that they’re putting money in really looks like they’re greasing the skids to get a lot more money out.” And money is just what CCA has been “putting in” – mostly to Republicans, but a great deal to Democrats as well.

In 2009, CCA gave $100,000 to Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget-reform ballot measure. From 2008-2010 the company also donated $5,000 to Gov. Schwarzenegger, $10,000 to Republican Meg Whitman’s gubernatorial campaign and $95,000 to the California Republican Party. CCA contributed a lesser amount ($5,000) to Democrat Jerry Brown’s campaign for governor, while it donated $47,500 to the California Democratic Party, according to the Institute for Money in State Politics.

Why the differing amounts? Traditionally, Democrats court and gain support from labor unions – and there is no more politically powerful union in California than the prison guards’ union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA). As a private prison operator, CCA’s interests diverge from those of the CCPOA – and thus are more closely aligned with those of the Republican Party. While CCPOA engages in collective bargaining efforts aimed at achieving higher salaries and more benefits for its members, CCA boasts that it can deliver the same services at a lower cost to the state, thus threatening the jobs of CCPOA’s membership.

In this respect CCA competes not only with the CCPOA but also with other private prison companies. Yet according to Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, chair of the Assembly Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review, “there was no competitive bidding” when the state originally contracted with CCA. While two vendors bid for the initial contract, said a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) spokesperson, one dropped out.

Explained Scott Kernan, CDCR Undersecretary of Operations, “CCA was the only one that had the cell capacity with the perimeter security and the programming necessary to take care of the offenders in a way that California takes care of them.”

To critics like Cressman with Common Cause, however, “it’s a classic case of pay-to-play politics.” Indeed, all told, CCA contributed more than $400,000 to political candidates and party committees in California from 2008 to 2010, and lobbied heavily to house the state’s prisoners in its out-of-state facilities.

In the end, were California taxpayers well served by this process? “We have no idea,” noted Assemblyman De La Torre.

Currently holding some 165,000 prisoners in 33 state prisons, the CDCR is under a federal court order to relieve overcrowding – with that case presently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. [See: PLN, Aug. 2010, p.1]. Unable to build its way out of the overcrowding situation – which was largely created by draconian sentencing and parole policies – and unwilling to release prisoners early, California officials have opted instead to house some of its prisoners in other states. Hence the need for private prison operators like CCA. The out-of-state transfers were authorized by AB 900, the Public Safety and Offender Rehabilitation Services Act of 2007.

A legal challenge to the transfers, filed by the CCPOA and the Service Employees International Union, was rejected by California’s Court of Appeal, Third District, on June 4, 2008. See: CCPOA v. Schwarzenegger, 163 Cal.App.4th 802, 77 Cal.Rptr.3d 844 (Cal.App. 3 Dist. 2008), review denied.

CCA’s contract with California initially allowed the company to house around 10,000 state prisoners in facilities in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma. Following a November 2010 contract renewal that gave CCA an additional 3,256 beds, plus another 2,580-bed contract with private prison company GEO Group, the capacity for out-of-state prison beds has increased to about 15,424 (GEO Group donated $25,000 to the California Republican Party in 2008). California prisoners will now be housed in Colorado, Minnesota and Michigan, too.

“Our ability to place offenders out of state offers us much needed flexibility, which ultimately creates a safer environment for inmates, our staff and the public,” said CDCR Undersecretary Kernan.

Not to mention that out-of-state prisoner transfers are also profitable both for private prison firms and the politicians who receive such companies’ generous campaign donations.

Sources: Associated Press,,

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Related legal case

CCPOA v. Schwarzenegger