Corporations You’ve Never Heard of are Making Millions from Mass Incarceration
By James Kilgore, Truthout
Likely the most well-known prison profiteers in the United States are the Corrections Corporation of America and The GEO Group. Between them, these two firms pulled in about $3.3 billion last year running scores of private prisons and immigration detention centers.
However, these two firms are not alone in feasting at the trough of corrections expenditures. Many other companies, most of them off the popular radar, are also benefiting from epidemic prison and jail building. Some may even be operating in your neighborhood. Here we’ll do a quick sketch of several such companies, outline their activities, ponder their deeds of infamy and reflect a little on how to curtail their profiteering.
Turner Construction: If We Build it They Will Come
Let’s start with the construction sector. Prison construction managers don’t come with a tool box and a pick-up. They are world-class operators. The largest player in this field is New York-based Turner Construction, a subsidiary of the German giant Hochtief.
According to IBISWorld, Turner’s average annual income for prison and jail construction came to $278 million per year from 2007 to 2012. This represents lots of money in most quarters, but qualifies as only slightly more than pocket change to a firm that earned $9 billion in total revenue for 2013. In almost a century and a half of operation, Turner has been involved in building New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium and constructing corporate headquarters for Boeing and the RAND Corporation. It has about 5,000 employees worldwide.
Despite prisons and jails not being their core business, they are still virtually omnipresent in the sector. Turner did construction management for a 6,000-bed facility in Bunker Hill, Indiana, participated in an $800 million overhaul of several state prisons in Pennsylvania in 2009, led work on jail construction in Forsyth County, Georgia ($100 million), Fort Bend County, Texas ($75 million), Johnson City, Kansas ($50 million), Kenton County, Ohio ($41 million), as well as on two jails custom-built for Corrections Corporation of America in Georgia’s Wheeler and Coffee counties at an estimated total cost of $80 million.
The demand for larger and more secure court facilities prompted Cook County, Illinois to contract with Turner in 2009 for the $110 million renovation of Chicago’s Everett M. Dirksen Courthouse. The Army Corps of Engineers employed Turner to upgrade its Detroit Border Patrol Station for $14 million in 2013.
Like many of the firms that reap profits from the prison-industrial complex, Turner keeps quiet about it. Their website highlights their role as the “leading builder of green buildings.” They also proclaim on their website: “We have the highest ethical standards in the industry. We ‘do the right thing.’” Perhaps doing the right thing might include pulling out of prison and jail building altogether, especially since an income cut of $278 million would reduce their annual revenue only by about 3 percent.
BI Incorporated: Keeping Track of “Offenders”
Colorado-based BI Incorporated manufactures electronic monitors. They specialize in cutting-edge GPS-based devices that deliver real-time location tracking. BI also offers technology for monitoring of alcohol consumption through an ankle bracelet or a remote breathalyzer known as Soberlink. The company monitors about 60,000 people at any given moment in all 50 states.
BI also contracts with state and county authorities to supervise people on electronic monitoring, in essence offering a form of privatized probation and parole. This supervision is typically done through “community-based” electronic monitoring offices. In most of their “community” corrections work, they stress the notion of user pays; in some instances, BI “probation” officers are expected to be the collection agents for these fees. Former employees have reported to Truthout that they received a bonus if they passed a certain target in collecting fees for services from their clients. In addition to community-based offices, BI operates a national call center from Indianapolis, which tracks all those on BI GPS monitors across the country.
While BI’s monitoring market has focused on those involved directly in the traditional criminal justice system, in 2009 BI entered a new field: immigration. The company signed a five-year, $372 million contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to intensively supervise up to 27,000 people who were awaiting judgment in deportation or asylum cases but not held in detention centers. The ICE contract was renewed in 2014, though reduced to roughly $235 million for five years.
BI was an independent firm for over two decades, but its contract with ICE made it an attractive target for acquisition. Hence, in 2011 The GEO Group bought out BI for $415 million. GEO Group’s acquisition of BI was in line with the increasing specialization of private prison companies in immigration. While private prison firms own or operate only about 8 percent of prison beds across the country, they control more than 40 percent of immigration detention cells. Further, acquiring BI also helped position GEO to limit the extent to which BI might market electronic monitoring as an alternative to incarceration. More people out of prison on ankle bracelets could mean plummeting profits for GEO Group’s prison operations.
Bob Barker: “Honoring God in All We Do”
While a host of suppliers has found prisons and jails to be a unique niche, perhaps none has adapted to the new marketplace as masterfully as Bob Barker Industries. Founded in the 1970s and now based in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, Bob Barker (no connection to the former TV game show host) produces a wide range of goods for prisoners and prison staff.
The firm bills itself as a “worldwide leader in delivering innovative products and services to correctional and rehabilitation customers.” The company’s vision, “Transforming criminal justice while honoring God in all we do,” captures the divine inspiration behind their profit-making.
Barker’s transformation program includes a variety of cheaply-made goods for the incarcerated: jumpsuits, sandals, T-shirts, board games, and black-and-white-striped canvas shoes. The company also sells steel stools and benches for dayrooms and yards.
In 1999, they opened their “officers-only” line and began to offer corrections staff a range of uniforms plus security items like handcuffs and leg shackles. In more recent years they have diversified into body armor, eyeglasses featuring imbedded digital cameras and riot shields.
One of their points of pride is innovation. A 1996 trademark application landed Bob Barker the brand “Correctional Classics.” Since that time these classics have taken a number of forms. In response to overcrowding, the company designed a three-tier bunk, which many facilities have used to house prisoners in gyms and dayrooms and other places which were never designed as living spaces. Perhaps their most heavily-marketed product is the van cell, which allows officers to lock a person inside a cell while they are being transported from one destination to another.
However, likely their most famous catalog item is the most simple: the throwback striped prison uniform. With a revival of such stigmatizing clothing in the last decade, Bob Barker has been at the forefront, with an edition the firm markets as the “convict classic.”
While production has sapped most of the firm’s energy over the past four decades, about two years ago Bob Barker Industries underwent a process of reflection and added a vice president of social responsibility, tasked with monitoring and improving the company’s impact.
Since that time some changes have taken place, including the installation of solar panels at the company headquarters as an energy-saving measure. However, perhaps their most daring venture has been an initiative sparked by Bob Barker, Jr. (son of the company’s founder) to address recidivism. Based on the newfound company revelation that “incarcerated individuals have value in the eyes of God,” the newly-minted Bob Barker Foundation has attempted to support a number of rehabilitation initiatives.
In fact, Bob Barker, Jr., in an interview with a North Carolina TV show, said that he “would die a very happy man” if the company could be so successful in combating recidivism that they would go out of business. Although the company’s finances are not public, they earn an estimated $100 million a year in revenue. And despite Bob Barker’s vows of self-sacrifice and devotion to ending recidivism, they are not likely to close up shop any time soon.
A longer version of this article was originally published by Truthout (www.truth-out.org) on January 19, 2015. Copyright, Truth-out.org. Reprinted with permission.
Ed. Note: Other companies you may have never heard of that profit from mass incarceration include American Securities, a private equity firm that owns Global Tel*Link, the nation’s largest prison phone service provider; ABRY Partners, another private equity firm that owns Securus Technologies, the second-largest prison phone company; The Vanguard Group, the largest shareholder in both CCA and GEO Group; and Beecken Petty O’Keefe & Company, a private equity firm that owns prison medical care contractor Corizon Health.
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