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Report: How Private Prison Companies Exercise Influence Over Public Officials

by Christopher Zoukis

An October 2016 report released by In the Public Interest (ITPI), a research and policy group that opposes the privatization of government services, details the millions of dollars spent by for-profit prison companies to influence public officials.

The report tracks political expenditures by private prison firms, including Corrections Corporation of America (CCA, now known as CoreCivic) and the GEO Group, to expand their role in the U.S. criminal justice system. The report exposes a serious flaw in the conventional belief that such companies will reduce costs, as some of the funds from taxpayer-paid private prison contracts are used for political contributions and lobbying intended to grow the for-profit prison industry and drain even more money from public coffers.

The report is organized around three distinct “avenues of influence” used by private prison firms. The first is the most obvious method by which the companies exert influence: campaign contributions. Between state, federal and local campaigns, the private prison industry spends millions of dollars each year supporting political candidates.

At the state level, the industry contributed over $2.5 million to 360 candidates for public office during the 2013 and 2014 election years. On the federal level, CCA and the GEO Group combined donated at least $500,000 to federal campaigns during each of the 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014 election cycles. Local contribution data is more difficult to track.

The majority of the recipients of private prison campaign money won their electoral races. If pay-to-play politics were not business as usual in the U.S., the public might be surprised to know that campaign contributions by for-profit prison companies have directly impacted their ability to secure lucrative contracts for everything from management of state and federal prisons to the provision of medical services and prison and jail phone services.

One blatant example noted in the report involved two Orange County, California supervisors who initially opposed the high fees charged by prison telephone service providers. After receiving the maximum allowable campaign contribution from Global Tel*Link (GTL), the nation’s largest prison phone company, the two supervisors changed their minds, giving GTL the votes it needed to secure a phone service contract for the county’s jail system. [See: PLN, Jan. 2016, p.22].

The second avenue of influence used by private prison companies is lobbying. In 2015, CCA and the GEO Group hired hundreds of lobbyists at the state and federal levels, paying them millions of dollars – largely obtained from taxpayer-funded government contracts – to influence lawmakers. The lobbying efforts paid off, with new contracts awarded, more bed space allocated to private prisons and, in some states, almost every aspect of the corrections system contracted out to for-profit companies.

At the federal level, lobbyists were successful in blocking two bills opposed by the private prison industry: the Justice is Not for Sale Act, introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders, which would have banned private prisons nationwide, and the Private Prison Information Act, which would have required private prisons housing federal prisoners to comply with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. [See: PLN, Aug. 2016, p.24; Nov. 2015, p.20]. Thanks to lobbying efforts by for-profit prison firms, neither of those bills made it out of committee.

The final avenue of influence outlined in the ITPI report is private prison industry involvement with professional corrections associations such as the American Correctional Association (ACA) and the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA). For-profit prison companies routinely use sponsorships, vendor fees, advertisements and donations to influence those associations, which are mainly comprised of public officials.

Noting that “once corrections companies receive contracts, their profit-seeking motives create environments that are counterproductive to rehabilitation,” the report makes several policy recommendations, all of which would reduce the influence of the private prison industry on the public sector. For example, ITPI suggests that government agencies should prohibit contractors from making any campaign contributions at all. The report also recommends that government officials adopt best practices for private prison contractors that would ensure the public interest is protected. Such practices include preventing for-profit prison companies from lowering wages or quality of service in order to reduce costs, requiring compliance with correctional department policies and allowing government agencies maximum flexibility with respect to canceling private prison contracts.

It is highly unlikely that such sensible policies will ever be implemented, however, as they are antithetical to the private prison industry’s business model. Yet they would serve to “reduce the influence of private companies on America’s criminal justice system, improving the environment for prisoners and protecting the broader public interest,” the report concluded.

According to CCA’s self-disclosed 2015 political spending report – the most recent available – the company spent $781,800 on campaign contributions that year, plus $1.48 million in lobbying on the federal, state and local levels. GEO Group does not produce a similar report.

Sources: “Buying Influence: How Private Prison Companies Expand Their Control of America’s Criminal Justice System,” In The Public Interest (October 2016);