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Why Our Movement Can’t Afford to Ignore Private Prison Corporations

by Caroline Isaacs, Program Director, AFSC

In 1998, I was a budding anti-prison activist, volunteering for the American Friends Service Committee in Arizona (AFSC-AZ). I was fortunate enough to attend the very first Critical Resistance gathering in Oakland and learn that I was actually part of a movement – a vibrant, fierce and committed group of people who, like me, saw the Prison Industrial Complex as one of the most dangerous threats to our communities. It was an energizing experience that solidified my commitment to this work.

Imagine my dismay, then, at receiving an email from Critical Resistance nearly 20 years later characterizing my work to combat private prisons as un-strategic and even as undermining the larger effort to end mass incarceration.

The critique, primarily leveled at prison divestment campaigns, was articulated by Ruthie Gilmore in her 2015 piece, “The Worrying State of the Anti-Prison Movement,” and was more recently espoused by John Pfaff in his book Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform.

The argument goes something like this: Because for-profit prison companies only hold about 8.5 percent of the nation’s state and federal prisoners, this proves that the profit motive is not a significant driver of mass incarceration. And, though private prison corporations make large campaign donations to elected officials, they do not have as much influence as prison guards or police unions. Finally, there is a larger concern that a focus on just those participants in mass incarceration that are for-profit entities allows the rest of the system off the hook, implying somehow that locking up millions of people is OK if corporations aren’t profiting directly.

I am a firm believer that our movement is strengthened by vigorous debate and constant interrogation of our strategies and methods. I appreciate the points being raised and would like to humbly offer a few of my own.

Let’s start with the places where we agree: The roots of mass incarceration are racism and social control, and the policies that created mass incarceration are ultimately the creation of government, not corporations. I would never argue that government-operated prisons are “better” than privatized ones, or a preferable alternative. The institutions that create, enforce and carry out criminalization and incarceration are frequently just as corrupt, mismanaged, abusive and unaccountable as for-profit corporations. AFSC-AZ is a prison abolitionist organization and our goal is to create a society in which prisons of any kind are unnecessary.

Privatization is merely an outgrowth – an inevitable response of the capitalist, political economy to an opportunity for profit. However, that outgrowth has continued to metastasize and is now working in many sectors to influence those government actors to make decisions that are in their corporate interests.

It is true that for-profit incarceration is a relatively small piece of the total pie that is mass incarceration. But the role these corporations play in the criminal punishment system depends a lot on where you sit. For example, nearly three-quarters of the average daily immigration detainee population is held in facilities operated by private prison companies.

A little over half of all states have for-profit facilities, and the extent of their use varies widely. In Arizona, almost 20 percent of our prison population is held in privately operated facilities (the sixth-highest rate in the country). Arizona also hosts six private prisons that import their captives from other jurisdictions. That includes contracts with Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Marshals for immigrant detention, as well as states like Vermont, Hawaii, California and, most recently, Puerto Rico.

More concerning is the rate of growth in privatization. The number of people held in privately operated prisons nationwide has increased 47% since 2000. In Critical Resistance’s home state of California, the percentage of prisoners held in private facilities grew by a staggering 219 percent between 2015 and 2016.

In a state like Arizona, when a new prison is built, you can almost guarantee it will be run by a for-profit enterprise. A common sales pitch: Corporations like CoreCivic and GEO Group have unlimited cash on hand to bear the expenses of new construction – something most states would have to get voter-approved bond money to do.

The level of political and economic influence of these corporations is formidable in many states and based on years of strategic relationship cultivation and much more extensive investments than just campaign donations. For example, CoreCivic has an agreement with one county in Arizona (where it operates a total of six facilities) to pay $2 per day for every person held in one of its facilities there. The company paid a total of $1.4 million to the county in 2012. In other words, this private prison corporation is literally underwriting the county’s budget. CoreCivic and GEO Group collectively own nearly 500 acres in that same county – ensuring that they can expand quickly to take advantage of future opportunities for new contracts.

Arizona is a vehemently anti-union state, with a stringent “Right to Work” law. Exactly half of U.S. states have these laws, and nationally we’ve seen a steady decline in the influence of organized labor. The lobbying power and political engagement of California’s prison guards’ union is unique to that state and is not at all representative of the level of influence wielded by these groups nationally. In the state where I work, you can be sure that prison guards, police officers or virtually any other group of workers has very little influence with state lawmakers. But anyone at the capitol can tell you who are the private prison lobbyists.

Our watchdogging of the for-profit prison industry helped us identify a disturbing new trend that is potentially more destructive than the growth of private prisons. As many states embrace sentencing reform to one degree or another, the prison building boom is winding down. This threat to their profit margins has prompted the big private prison companies – and a proliferation of other businesses – to adopt a new strategy: Capitalize on the emerging market for “alternatives.”

Starting around 2010, the major private prison companies began to pivot, changing their corporate structures, growth strategies and communications from a focus on prison operations to providing “community corrections” programs like electronic monitoring, re-entry services and operating day reporting centers for people on probation and parole. GEO Group added an entire division called GEOCare, and now advertises itself as “the Global Leader in Evidence-Based Rehabilitation.” Corrections Corporation of America went so far as to literally rebrand by changing its name to CoreCivic and removing any reference to prisons completely. Both CoreCivic and GEO Group have moved aggressively to acquire smaller companies that already hold such contracts, allowing them to expand their holdings rapidly in this segment.

This shift poses a very real threat to the success of many of our organizations’ efforts. These companies are essentially hijacking the national movement to end mass incarceration. They’re selling whatever governments are buying; right now, that’s community corrections and alternatives to incarceration. What they create, however, are not alternatives to incarceration, but alternative forms of incarceration – “prison lite” – or other less restrictive forms of supervision and surveillance that still amount to un-freedom.

Case in point: A quick search reveals that GEO Group currently operates a total of 37 facilities in California. None of these are state prisons, but they do include jails, as well as residential re-entry centers and day reporting centers. John Pfaff points out that New York state has no private prisons, but he may not realize that it does have two GEO Group facilities (one immigrant detention center and one federal community re-entry center), as well as a total of five facilities now owned by CoreCivic through its recent acquisition of Rocky Mountain Offender Management Systems. I’d be willing to bet that this is just the beginning.

As new potential sources of profit emerge, the industry is metastasizing. Along with the old-guard mega-corporations like CoreCivic, there are new ones springing up everywhere, jostling for position. Corporations that never had anything to do with criminal justice are suddenly looking to get in on the action, like 3M (yes, the company that makes Post-It Notes). The corporation’s second-highest earning division is the “Safety and Graphics Business Segment,” which provides high-tech security and surveillance products for law enforcement and correctional facilities. And small cities and towns are looking to play “private prison” by offering empty jail bed space to state and federal authorities.

In Arizona, opposing the privatization of punishment is just one part of a comprehensive strategy, which also includes policy advocacy, organizing with directly-impacted communities and communications work to change the narrative about what constitutes safety. We view the for-profit prison industry and the government criminal punishment apparatus as two heads of the same monster.

If we just focus on trying to enact sentencing reform while CoreCivic is lobbying for new contracts, we get nowhere. And if we were just fighting with the private prison industry while legislators were passing more tough-on-crime legislation, same outcome – more incarceration, not less. For us – doing the groundwork in this one state – the for-profit punishment industry is a real threat and a strategic target. It may not be strategic everywhere, but it’s wrong to say it is un-strategic anywhere.

To those who scoff at our work against for-profit incarceration, remember that when we stop a private prison, we stop a prison. 


This article was originally published by the American Friends Service Committee’s Arizona office ( on September 17, 2018; it is reprinted with permission, with minor edits. Copyright, AFSC-AZ 2018.

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