Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

From Cages to the Community: Prison Profiteers and the Treatment Industrial Complex

by Christopher Zoukis

Criminal justice reform is slowly taking hold in the U.S. Since 2014, at least 30 states have passed legislation aimed at reducing their prison populations. And following the election of “law and order” President Donald J. Trump, states have continued to take reform efforts into their own hands – since improvements on the federal level appear unlikely. According to an April 2017 Pew Research Center report, those efforts have been working; from 2009 to 2015, the combined state and federal prison population has dropped by over 5%.

This is encouraging news for just about everyone. But for those who profit from our nation’s perverse system of mass incarceration, the news is not so welcome. In fact, it’s downright frightening. The Pew report, based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, found that private prison populations have declined by a profit-pinching 8% since 2012.

So what is a prison profiteer to do? Diversify – and follow the money.

The Treatment Industrial Complex

While the prison population has dipped slightly in recent years, vast sums are pouring into what the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and other human rights organizations have referred to as the “treatment industrial complex” – a nod to the better-known Prison Industrial Complex, which has resulted in mass incarceration in the U.S.

An August 2016 AFSC report, titled “Community Cages: Profitizing Community Corrections and Alternatives to Incarceration,” identified three aspects of the treatment industrial complex: civil commitment centers and forensic mental hospitals; mental health and medical care provided in prisons and jails; and community corrections, which includes reentry and rehab programs, halfway houses and alternatives to prison.

AFSC reported that community corrections is “the largest and fastest growing component of the treatment industrial complex.” The emphasis on community corrections is partly the result of a “growing consensus among practitioners and researchers ... that community-based interventions that place individuals on the lowest level of supervision necessary for the shortest time necessary produce the best public safety outcomes.” In addition, community-based options are significantly less expensive than incarceration.

Grassroots Leadership, a non-profit that opposes for-profit prisons, released a report on the treatment industrial complex, co-published with AFSC and the Southern Center for Human Rights, in November 2014. It described “the expansion of the incarceration industry away from warehousing and into areas that traditionally were focused on treatment and care of individuals involved in the criminal justice system – prison medical care, forensic mental hospitals, civil commitment centers, and ‘community corrections’ programs such as halfway houses and home arrest.”

The report noted that “While the prison industrial complex was dependent on incarceration or detention in prisons, jails, and other correctional institutions, this emerging ‘treatment industrial complex’ allows the same corporations (and many new ones) to profit from providing treatment-oriented programs and services.”

Community corrections can be subdivided into front-end alternatives, which include probation, house arrest and intermediate sanction facilities, and back-end alternatives such as parole, halfway houses and work release centers. Some of these options also include an element of electronic monitoring.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of the end of 2015 around 4.65 million people were under some form of probation or parole supervision. The use of residential reentry centers, also known as halfway houses, has increased significantly (in spite of recent closures of some federal RRCs), as has the use of electronic monitoring – which has soared 68 percent between 1998 and 2014.

Beverly Sharp, who worked in various administrative positions within the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) over a 30-year career, told the International Business Times that there is a “staggering” demand for services between incarceration and reentry, and that community corrections alternatives are an important part of the prison system.

“When you’re returning people to the same people and places they were around before they were incarcerated,” without providing treatment of some sort, they are in danger of recidivating, she said.

Despite the importance and need for back-end community corrections options, the BOP does not own or operate any residential reentry centers. A 2016 memorandum from then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates noted the federal government “lacks the capacity to own and operate its own” halfway houses. As a result, the Bureau of Prisons relies on a network of nonprofit and for-profit entities to operate halfway houses for federal prisoners. The BOP currently contracts with over 140 residential reentry centers nationwide; around 70 percent of those agreements are with nonprofit organizations while the rest are with for-profit companies.

The second half of 2017 saw the cancellation of over a dozen federal halfway house contracts. [See: PLN, Nov. 2017, p.24]. While it is too early to say what that portends, some critics believe the BOP is realigning its residential reentry center portfolio to make room for halfway houses operated by private prison firms that made substantial donations to President Trump’s election campaign or inauguration fund.

Companies such as GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA) saw the writing on the wall years ago. As the prison population began to drop and community corrections numbers increased, they pivoted and expanded their business model. According to the AFSC report, both GEO and CoreCivic shifted their marketing and operational efforts toward community corrections starting in 2010. Rebranding themselves as providers of rehabilitation-related services, the two companies have collectively spent close to a billion dollars acquiring smaller businesses that provide reentry programs, including community corrections and halfway houses.

Filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who produced the October 2016 documentary “Treatment Industrial Complex,” argued that neither GEO Group nor CoreCivic have actually changed their business practices.

“[P]rison companies are simply rebranding themselves to market a repackaged product, promoting their business as providing humane treatment and rehabilitation,” said Greenwald. “Instead of alternatives to incarceration, it’s alternative forms of incarceration.”

Michelle Chen made a similar observation in an article published by The Nation. Referring to efforts by GEO and CoreCivic to obtain community corrections contracts as “the corporatization of prison reform,” she made clear that the nature of for-profit prison companies has not changed.

“[C]ontrary to the rhetoric of privateers, private prison is a dirty business,” Chen wrote. “Prison giants like Corrections Corporation of America are notorious for cost overruns, inadequate staff training, and abusive conditions. Meanwhile, the underlying structural injustice lies in the basic business model of profiting from oppression.”

As criminal justice reform efforts shift the emphasis (and money) away from the Prison Industrial Complex and toward the treatment industrial complex, human rights advocates warn that a careful eye and strong hand are necessary when dealing with prison profiteers who seek to move into the community corrections market.

“The treatment-industrial complex is in its infancy,” wrote private prison critics Arjun Sethi and Cate Graziani in a March 9, 2016 Politico article. “We should heed the warnings of history and scrutinize the incentives and priorities of those who stand to profit from it now rather than later.”

Prison Profiteers Go on a Spending Spree

GEO Group and CoreCivic are multi-billion dollar, publicly-traded companies organized as real estate investment trusts (REITs). Both companies contract with state governments and federal agencies to operate private prisons, and have done so for more than three decades. Both market themselves as being able to provide and operate safe and humane correctional services at a lower cost than government-run facilities.

However, numerous reports of substandard conditions, violence, understaffing, sexual abuse, riots and disturbances, escapes and deaths in private prisons – many of which have been covered in PLN – belie those claims. Multiple studies have found that private prisons tend to be more dangerous for both prisoners and guards.

For example, the Marshall Project reported that assault rates were three to five times higher at private prisons in Mississippi than at public facilities. And an August 2016 report by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General concluded that privately-operated federal prisons “had more frequent incidents per capita of contraband finds, assaults, uses of force, lockdowns, guilty findings on inmate discipline charges, and selected categories of grievances.” [See: PLN, Oct. 2016, p.22].

With respect to conditions at private prisons, a March 23, 2017 article in the Miami Herald described Florida state Rep. David Richardson’s two visits to the MTC-operated Gadsden Correctional Facility in 2017, where he observed “55-degree temperatures in inmate cells; no hot water; care being withheld from ill inmates; a tooth extraction without sedation; an inmate who contracted pneumonia after being housed in a unit with no heat or hot water; and reports that guards who impregnated inmates were allowed to remain on the job.” [See: PLN, Feb. 2018, p.52].

In addition to generally being more violent and poorly-run than their state-run counterparts, it is highly unlikely that private prisons result in cost savings. Criminal justice expert Marie Gottschalk noted in her book Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics that independent studies, factoring in differing populations, accounting practices and operations, have shown that prison privatization “saves little, if any money.” And according to an Arizona state auditor report, private prisons in that state were, on average, more expensive to operate than public prisons. [See also: PLN, Oct. 2016, p.1].

An outlier study by the Reason Foundation, a libertarian organization, found that private prisons saved 10 to 15 percent compared to state-run facilities – but then consider the Reason Foundation has received funding from both GEO Group and CoreCivic.

GEO bills itself as “the world’s leading provider of diversified correctional, detention, community reentry, and electronic monitoring services to government agencies worldwide with operations in the United States, Australia, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.” The company had gross revenue of $2.26 billion in 2017, and owns or manages 141 facilities worldwide with approximately 96,000 beds.

Beginning in 2010, GEO Group began acquiring companies that provide community corrections services. GEO bought Cornell Companies, which operated private prisons and provided drug treatment and counseling, in August 2010. The following year, GEO Group paid $415 million to finalize the purchase of BI, Inc., one of the nation’s largest electronic monitoring firms. [See: PLN, April 2011, p.40]. In 2015, GEO acquired Soberlink, Inc., the self-described “leader in mobile-breath sobriety monitoring.”

But 2017 was an even bigger year for the company. Last August, GEO Group acquired Community Education Centers (CEC), a New Jersey-based provider of for-profit “rehabilitative services for offenders in reentry and in-prison facilities as well as management services for county, state, and federal correctional and detention facilities.” The $360 million deal added 12,000 community reentry beds to GEO’s existing portfolio, as well as 4,500 correctional and detention beds. [See: PLN, July 2017, p.29].

GEO Group CEO and founder George Zoley made the company’s direction clear in a statement accompanying the purchase of CEC.

“This important transaction will allow us to expand the delivery of enhanced in-prison rehabilitation including evidence-based treatment, integrated with post-release support services through our industry-leading GEO Continuum of Care,” Zoley stated. “Our continued efforts to be the leading provider of rehabilitation and re-entry services underscores our commitment to improve the lives of the men and women entrusted to us as well as our belief that as a company, we are at our best by helping those in our care re-enter society as productive and employable citizens.”

GEO Group’s purchase of CEC established the company as an industry leader in the provision of community corrections, with 11,625 residential reentry beds and 63 non-residential reentry facilities under its control. Zoley referred to the acquisition as “a compelling strategic fit” for the company, as it “further positions GEO to meet the demand for increasingly diversified correctional, detention, and community reentry facilities and services across the country.”

CoreCivic has not remained idle as GEO Group, its main competitor, went about buying community corrections companies. CoreCivic, which had gross revenue of $1.76 billion in 2016, began purchasing reentry and community corrections firms in 2013, starting with Correctional Alternatives, Inc. – a San Diego-based provider of residential reentry and home confinement services. In 2015, CoreCivic acquired Avalon Correctional Services, a privately-held community corrections company, for $157.5 million.

Further, CoreCivic bought Correctional Management, Inc. in April 2016 for $35 million. That same year the company acquired the Long Beach Correctional Center, a minimum-security halfway house, for $7.7 million. The trend continued in 2017, with CoreCivic closing on the acquisition of multiple residential reentry providers with locations in Colorado, Georgia, North Carolina and Oklahoma. [See: PLN, Aug. 2017, p.48; June 2017, p.24].

And on January 1, 2018, CoreCivic completed its $7 million purchase of Rocky Mountain Offender Management Systems, LLC – a company that provides “non-residential correctional alternatives, including electronic monitoring and case management services, to municipal, county and state governments in eight states.”

In a statement regarding the company’s acquisition of Avalon, which added 3,157 reentry beds to its portfolio, CoreCivic CEO Damon Hininger said the purchase was an indicator of the direction of the company’s future.

“The residential re-entry space is a natural extension of the broad re-entry programming and capacity solutions we offer in our correctional facilities,” he said. “Our government partners around the country are seeking ways to help ex-offenders gain the tools and skills needed to return to their communities successfully, which reduces recidivism and improves the quality of life for former inmates and their families. We believe [CoreCivic] provides the expertise and compelling value proposition to be the ideal provider of these solutions.”

The company’s push into community corrections has been on a different scale than GEO Group’s, with CoreCivic focusing on the acquisition of a large number of smaller companies. As of June 2016, the company owned or controlled 25 residential reentry centers with 5,082 beds in six states. With the more recent acquisitions, those numbers have since increased.

GEO Group and CoreCivic both intend to capitalize on the community corrections market. Despite public statements in which the companies purport to lay claim to the higher ground of wanting to rehabilitate prisoners and reduce recidivism, the push into community corrections is purely a business decision. A GEO Group executive illustrated that fact in a 2017 statement in which he told investors, “We believe that the emphasis on offender rehabilitation and community re-entry programs as part of criminal justice reform will create growth opportunities for our company.”

Acquisition of smaller firms is not the only way that GEO and CoreCivic are pursuing growth opportunities in the community corrections market. Both companies have expended considerable sums lobbying state and federal legislators and agencies. GEO Group spent $1.95 million lobbying the federal government over a recent four-year span, while CoreCivic spent just over $1 million in state and federal lobbying in 2016 alone.

In 2015, GEO Group began lobbying Congress on “the promotion of the benefits in the use of public-private partnerships for the delivery of secure residential care, community reentry and supervision [and] offender rehabilitation,” according to federal lobbying disclosure forms, while in 2017, CoreCivic announced that it was launching an initiative to advocate for policies designed to reduce recidivism. That initiative called for increased funding for reentry programs and policies to reduce the barriers that ex-offenders face when trying to obtain employment. [See: PLN, Dec. 2017, p.46].

“This is simply a further attempt at rebranding – such as when CCA recently changed its name to CoreCivic after its brand became synonymous with the rape, murder, neglect and abuse of prisoners in their care, as well as riots and escapes,” PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann said in a November 2017 press release. “CoreCivic could invest directly in rehabilitative and reentry programs and services. I don’t see where CoreCivic has said it is going to devote financial resources to reducing recidivism; rather, the company only indicated it ‘will apply government relations resources and expertise,’ whatever that means.”

In 2015, both GEO and CoreCivic successfully objected to shareholder resolutions that would have required them to spend just 5% of their net income “on programs and services designed to reduce recidivism rates for offenders.” [See: PLN, Feb. 2015, p.48].

Are Prison Profiteers Qualified?

Private prison companies such as GEO Group and CoreCivic have historically touted their “expertise” and lengthy track record in the corrections industry when vying for contracts with government agencies. That tactic remains a regular part of the companies’ strategy as they have extended their reach into the community corrections market, as they claim they are uniquely qualified to operate reentry facilities and halfway houses.

But as noted above, the questionable track record of private prison operators is not something that should be advertised as a selling point. Arjun Sethi and Cate Graziani wrote in Politico that the history of for-profit prison companies is far less than stellar and should be cause for concern.

“These for-profit companies argue that they have developed the expertise to best treat ... [prisoners], but their foray into treatment, rehabilitation and case management should be met with great suspicion,” they wrote. “Their record of managing prisons is ripe with abuse, and complaints alleging inadequate safety, care and arbitrary cost-cutting abound. These same complaints are now proliferating regarding their treatment and rehabilitation programs.”

Leonard Gilroy, director of government reform at the Reason Foundation, which has long advocated for privatization, agreed that there are “horror stories” associated with private prison companies. However, he noted that problems also exist in the public sector.

“[Y]ou see horror stories with government centers as well,” he said, correctly.

Yet as AFSC’s Economic Activism program director Dalit Baum pointed out, the criminal justice system is a creation of the government, not private industry. Therefore, whatever problems may exist in public facilities, “it is the state’s authority and very, very grave responsibility to deal with the justice system, [and] it should not be given to the hands of profiteers.”

As one example of the dangers of unqualified private prison companies moving into community corrections, on November 26, 2017, Daniel Pena, 64, was murdered at the Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Center in Colorado Springs, one of four facilities run by GEO Group in Colorado. The for-profit facility was described by the state Department of Corrections as “the last stop before community reintegration.”

Unfortunately it was the last stop for Pena, period.

Further, the Reading Eagle reported on a disturbing string of overdose deaths at the GEO Group-owned ADAPPT halfway house in Reading, Pennsylvania. At least seven residents died of drug overdoses from July 2016 through September 2017, following GEO’s purchase of the reentry facility. Records from the coroner’s office indicated that all had overdosed on some form of opioid.

Michael Critchosin, the director of ADAPPT and a GEO Group employee, laid the blame for what the Reading Eagle called the worst fatal overdose record among Pennsylvania’s 55 halfway houses on bad choices made by the now-deceased residents.

“I give them my condolences,” he said. “It is a residential community [facility] where they are allowed to make choices on their own.”

Former ADAPPT resident Dawn Zdanowicz told the International Business Times that the problem was GEO Group’s incompetence, not the bad choices made by drug-addicted residents at the halfway house.

“Nobody’s going to get any kind of help in there,” said Zdanowicz, whose roommate fatally overdosed at the facility. “If you’re going to run a dual diagnosis center, you have to have the training that goes with that.”

Across the Delaware River, five people who were smuggling drugs, alcohol and other contraband into the GEO Group-operated Bo Robinson Education and Training Center in Trenton, New Jersey were arrested in October 2017 following a federal investigation. The facility has a long history of problems, including rampant falsification of prisoner records.

In Oklahoma, the Department of Corrections found a treasure trove of contraband when state officials raided the CoreCivic-run Carver Transitional Center in Oklahoma City. The April 2016 shakedown netted nearly 40 grams of marijuana, a half gram of methamphetamine, alcohol and 26 cell phones.

Oklahoma DOC director Joe M. Allbaugh said prisoners at the Carver center were under the same restrictions as in state prisons, and that CoreCivic’s security measures had failed.

“It is unacceptable for inmates to walk past a security check point with the volume of contraband items that were found inside the facility,” he remarked. “This kind of negligence will end immediately. I expect the full cooperation of CCA as we review its safety protocols.”

Director Allbaugh may have his work cut out for him. CoreCivic has extended its reach into Oklahoma community corrections centers with its recent purchases, and now controls 70% of the state’s 1,420 halfway house beds. The company appears to be employing a consolidation strategy, closing some facilities while moving residents to others. According to June 2017 news reports,CoreCivic closed the Center Point Osage and Center Point Tulsa reentry facilities, transferring some of the residents to the company’s Tulsa Transitional Center – reportedly the worst-performing halfway house that contracts with the state.

In November 2017, two prisoners, David Allen Walden, 47, and Richard Eubanks, Jr., 54, died at the Tulsa Transitional Center within a three-day period. A lawsuit filed by Walden and Eubanks’ families in February 2018 claims their deaths resulted from inadequate medical treatment. See: Walden v. CoreCivic, District Court for Tulsa County (OK), Case No. CJ-2017-4974.

“They had a duty to provide medical care and they breached that duty by not providing medical care, or not allowing them to get medical care,” said attorney Greg Denney.

The 2016 AFSC report detailed numerous other problems in for-profit community corrections centers across the country. Escapes are rampant at such facilities, from New Jersey to Texas. [See: PLN, Jan. 2015, p.1]. There have been reports of gang violence and phony classes, staged for state inspectors, at facilities in Colorado. And in one San Diego halfway house, conditions deteriorated so rapidly following its purchase by CoreCivic that a former guard at the facility staged a hunger strike.

Mark Bartlett, who was fired in 2015, said the company’s acquisition of the Ocean View reentry center resulted in cuts to food, staff and programs, as well as falsification of training records. When he complained to CoreCivic he was reportedly ignored, leading to his decision to start a hunger strike.

“It’s turned into a business where they’re cutting corners on everything. Whether it’s with cutting staff on payroll, cutting food, the lack of nutrition, cutting programming,” he said.

Bartlett and other activists have asked San Diego County to stop contacting with the company. CoreCivic purchased Ocean View and another reentry center in San Diego, known as Boston Avenue, in 2013 for $36 million.

One thing that both GEO Group and CoreCivic are well qualified to do is generate profit. But expertise in profiting from the provision of correctional services is not the same as competence in running reentry centers – facilities that have a unique mission, which does not easily mesh with a for-profit business model. The AFSC report noted that private companies like GEO and CoreCivic are “notoriously tight-fisted when it comes to their facilities’ construction, amenities, programs and services available to prisoners, and, most significantly, staffing.”

Should Prison Profiteers Provide Community Corrections?

The demand for community corrections and reentry programs in our criminal justice system is growing. As governments move to satisfy this need, they are increasingly turning to private contractors. Yet as indicated above, for-profit companies are not necessarily competent to carry out the unique mission of community corrections – and even if they were, the question still remains: Should they?

Both GEO Group and CoreCivic are publicly traded corporations, owned by shareholders who demand a return on their investment. Indeed, the companies have a duty to generate profit; they also have contractual obligations to the government agencies with which they do business. But private prison firms have no direct responsibility to the prisoners in their custody, whether in prisons, jails or reentry facilities.

The stakes are life or death for any business when it comes to profit, including companies that operate in the private prison industry. The need to profit always produces incentives, but in the business of incarceration those incentives can be unethical and immoral.

“They’re only making money if they’re controlling people,” Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, a public policy organization, said of private prison companies. “The incentive is to control as much as possible and spend as little as possible.”

AFSC agreed, arguing that “[t]he profit motive is inherently at odds with the stated purpose of ‘corrections,’” and noting that because private contractors “are financially dependent on the growth of supervised populations ... [there is] a perverse incentive not to rehabilitate” prisoners.

Leonard Gilroy with the Reason Foundation countered there is nothing new about governments contracting with private companies, and said he saw no problem with for-profit correctional services.

“Historically, we have not and I don’t think we should have a problem with putting companies to work in service of the public,” Gilroy stated. “If they’re making a profit, well, fantastic.”

Maybe it’s not so fantastic, though, when the profit motive creates financial incentives at odds with the societal goals of the criminal justice system, observed Kansas City Star opinion-page columnist Mary Page.

“In a for-profit model – in which more inmates equals more revenue – what possible incentive does a rehabilitation company have to help people regain stability and rejoin society?” she asked.

Indeed, the AFSC report argued that extending a profit motivation into community corrections posed a threat to the movement to end mass incarceration.

“The pursuit of profit undermines the movement’s goal of shrinking the size and scope of the criminal punishment system,” the report stated. “While the best practices in the area of community corrections emphasize tailoring interventions to provide the lowest level of security or surveillance necessary for the shortest amount of time, the incentive for private prison companies is to ‘widen the net’ of people under ever-increasing levels of control.”

Jeremy Mohler, who writes for In the Public Interest, argued in a USA Today column that those who advocate for alternatives to incarceration, including reentry and community corrections, “must be vocal about the potential harms of allowing those alternatives to be sources of profits for companies, especially those with strong political influence, such as CoreCivic and GEO Group.”

He added, “In private hands, services such as residential re-entry and electronic monitoring could be used on greater numbers of the population and for longer periods of time simply because doing so would be in the financial interest of the companies providing those services.”

Companies, like individuals, respond to incentives whether perverse or not. Profit is not the only source of motivation, however. Some experts who believe that private prison companies are here to stay argue that incentives to act in a manner counter to criminal justice goals can be nullified through careful contracting requirements. Contracts between government agencies and the private sector could, for example, be used to incentivize pro-social practices.

Arjun Sethi and Cate Graziani suggest that “Bed quotas and occupancy guarantees [in private prison contracts] ... should be replaced with incentives for rehabilitation and release.” Otherwise, such contracting practices are ripe for abuse and lead to profiteering at the expense of correctional goals such as rehabilitation and reducing recidivism. Criminal justice scholars John Pfaff and Lauren-Brooke Eisen have both argued in favor of realigning private prison contracts, recommending a focus on the results (i.e., rehabilitation) rather than occupancy levels in privately-operated facilities.

Lauren-Brooke Eisen made that point in her recently-released book, Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration – although arguments for better contracting practices assume that government agencies should contract with for-profit prison companies in the first place, since “better” contracting still perpetuates the private prison industry and thus the Prison Industrial Complex.

Tying a company’s success to a prisoner’s post-release success is especially relevant in community corrections and reentry programs, since the goal of lower recidivism rates directly conflicts with the need of companies to generate profit. To ensure that properly-incentivized contracts are honored by private prison firms, Sethi and Graziani note that substantial oversight and monitoring must be built into the contracts, with regular audits to ensure accountability.

As one example of a state using contractual provisions to shift incentives for private contractors, in 2013 Pennsylvania began linking reductions in recidivism rates to the payments received by privately-operated halfway houses. [See: PLN, Sept. 2014, p.50; April 2013, p.44].

However, no amount of better or more stringent contracting can erase the ethical and moral issues inherent in contracting out community corrections services to for-profit prison companies, thereby shifting problems within the Prison Industrial Complex to the treatment industrial complex.

“Making justice system-involved people into profit-generating machines is inherently unethical,” AFSC stated. “It is also a dangerous trend that ultimately undermines the public safety and rehabilitative goals of the criminal justice system.”

The Fox in the Henhouse

From a conceptual standpoint, the growing movement in criminal justice circles to focus on rehabilitation, treatment and reentry rather than warehousing prisoners is a positive development. Activists have been advocating for such changes for many years, mostly without success. And while the nation’s carceral population remains at very high levels (with over 2.2 million people in prisons and jails), some reform efforts, at least, are in the works.

But the recent focus on community corrections and reentry is attracting opportunistic predators in the form of for-profit prison firms. The political climate is right, and private prison companies are investing millions in an effort to capitalize on what GEO Group CEO George Zoley has referred to as the “corrections lifecycle.” Prison populations may be declining slightly, but alternatives to incarceration and reentry programs are on the rise.

In an effort to capitalize on the community corrections market, private prison contractors are, according to AFSC, “rebranding themselves as humanitarian providers of treatment and rehabilitation.” Publicly, GEO Group says it is committed to “helping those in [its] care,” while CoreCivic has stressed its efforts to reduce recidivism rates.

But for-profit prison companies and their lobbyists and allies really have just one goal: to make money. The only “rehabilitation” that interests private prison firms is the rehabilitation of their lost revenue streams, and they are seeking to do this by diversifying and applying their for-profit business model to the treatment industrial complex.

When it comes to community corrections, the fox is already in the henhouse. Nonprofit reentry centers are being replaced by for-profit facilities, and states and the federal government are contributing to that shift by contracting with companies like CoreCivic and GEO. Based on over three decades worth of experience with privately-operated prisons and jails, there is little doubt as to how this will play out in community corrections.

Historically, for-profit prisons have proven to be dangerous, violent and ineffective, with little evidence they achieve cost savings. Rather, they exist to line the pockets of their executives and shareholders. So why should the outcome in community corrections and reentry services be any different?

Kathy O’Leary, with the activist coalition New Jersey Prison Divest, explained that community corrections is not the place for billion-dollar corporations. Large companies that work in the reentry and rehab fields, she told the International Business Times, “try to do economies of scale, but it’s a more intimate experience than that.”

O’Leary added, “If you look at these programs that are successful, those faith-based nonprofits, they really have a more individualized approach.”

The 2016 AFSC report came to a similar conclusion, noting that “Evidence-based practices point toward individually-operated services instead of a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Michelle Chen agreed that putting a prisoner’s return to the community in the hands of a for-profit prison company is unlikely to lead to success. She also opined that the corporatization of reentry services is potentially detrimental to society, stating that “some activists fear private-sector solutions might pervert prison reform into a neoliberal variation of convict leasing, in which industry and state collude to ‘redeem’ society’s undesirables.”

There is already plenty of evidence of exploitive prisoner labor in the penal system, which extends to community corrections, too – including recent news reports that to avoid prison terms, defendants in Oklahoma and other states agreed to participate in “rehab” work programs that involved long shifts at chicken processing plants for no pay. [See: PLN, Jan. 2018, p.1].

Chen argued that the solution is for local communities to take back the criminal justice system, including community corrections and reentry programs.

“Although Big Business wants to capture public reinvestments in prison ‘alternatives,’” she wrote, “communities recover the real social cost of mass incarceration by reclaiming the whole criminal-justice system so its policies serve the public good, not private gain.”

Grassroots Leadership and AFSC are working to educate and inform the public, as well as policymakers, about the dangers of the treatment industrial complex, and the reports produced by the two organizations are required reading for anyone who wants to better understand the shift from the Prison Industrial Complex to profit-based community corrections. AFSC’s report summarizes what is at stake:

“With tools such as electronic monitoring becoming more widely available and reentry centers an increasingly attractive cost savings option for states and counties, the Treatment Industrial Complex will continue to expand until there is a recognition of the pitfalls and consequences of poorly contracted services,” the report explains. “While there is a vital need to reduce the incarcerated population, it is important to ensure these programs do not simply ensnare more individuals in the system, spend tax dollars erroneously, or allow for profit without quality service.”

Unfortunately, it appears it is precisely in that direction that for-profit community corrections and reentry programs are headed. 

Sources:,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, Grassroots Leadership,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, Mother Jones,

Christopher Zoukis, author of the Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016) and College for Convicts (McFarland & Co., 2014), is a contributing writer to Prison Legal News,Criminal Legal News, the Huffington Post, New York Daily News and the New York Journal of Books. Additional information is available online at


As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login