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Private Prisons: Just Bit Players in Mass Incarceration

In the rush to find targets and mobilize outrage, assigning too much culpability to private prisons runs the risk of ignoring bigger forces. Private prison operators are bit players in a broader drama directed by state actors. Elected officials, "tough on crime" advocates and corporate interests have used mass incarceration to advance a political agenda of criminalizing the poor and dismantliing the social safety net of the working class.

A prison guard on duty outside El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma. President Obama toured the prison on July 16, 2015.,Doug Mills/The New York Times

Social justice activists love to hate private prisons. The loathing is easy to justify. Making profit by locking people up and keeping them there is repulsive. Moreover, major private prison operators like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group have a history of tragedy and ruthless behavior. From the early days of CCA when cofounder Tom Beasley described marketing prisons as "just like ... selling cars, or real estate, or hamburgers" to more recent revelations of locking up preschoolers, private prisons have plumbed the depths of immorality. And they have thrown money at the project, spending millions on lobbying for harsher sentencing laws to secure their bottom lines, even bribing judges to incarcerate juveniles.

Since 2000, private prison companies have staked out the war on immigrants as their market niche, working with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to promote the passage of harsh anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona, Alabama and other states to corral more "customers" for their growing stable of detention centers. Unless you are a shareholder, there is little to praise about the rebirth of private prisons that has accompanied mass incarceration.

Yet in the rush to find soft targets and mobilize outrage, assigning too much culpability to private prisons runs the risk of ignoring much bigger forces. Ultimately, private prison operators are bit players in a much broader drama directed by state actors. A host of elected officials, "tough on crime" advocates and dozens of corporate interests beyond CCA and the GEO Group have used mass incarceration to advance a political agenda of criminalizing the poor and dismantling the social safety net of the working class. As writer Alex Lichtenstein has recently reminded us, "mass incarceration has become the new welfare."

A quick look at the actual footprint of private prisons reveals how marginal they are. Overall, private firms own or control just 9 percent of prison and jail beds in the United States. The population in their facilities declined by 2 percent in the past year. In terms of income, the combined 2014 earnings of CCA and the GEO Group, which amount to about 70 percent of private prison revenue, came to just over $3 billion - less than half of the state corrections budget of California. The annual budget for the Los Angeles County sheriff's office exceeds the revenue of CCA, the largest of the private prison companies, by about half a billion dollars.

The main market niche for private prisons is immigration detention centers, where they control about 40 percent of the roughly 30,000 beds. This has included some important new institution building in the last decade. But immigration detention is only a small part of the incarceration of immigrants. Ten times as many immigrants are housed in state and federal prisons as in detention centers. Moreover, many state systems, which house about two-thirds of all those behind bars, have little private prison presence. While the operators of private prisons may have a significant market share in Texas and New Mexico, enormous state prison systems such as California, New York and Illinois have carried out their expansion programs without a single major prison in private hands.

Private prison operators spend tens of millions of dollars on lobbying, but the legislators they have been pressuring have already been converted to the gospel of "tough on crime" and growing corrections spending. In the name of the war on drugs, the need to capture youth "superpredators" and the drive to keep out "illegal" immigrants, lawmakers have allocated billions to prison building and over-policing of communities of color. They haven't needed the lobbying of private prisons to carry out what Martin Horn calls the "prison binge."

The private prison companies had not even been born when Ronald Reagan launched the war on drugs in 1982. Nor were they a driving source for influencing Congress in 1988 when the vote for the Anti-Drug Abuse Act passed 346-11. The private prisons were not whispering in Bill Clinton's ear when he pushed through the omnibus crime bill and other acts in the 1990s, which allocated $9.7 billion for prison building and $6 billion for policing at a time when the feds were dramatically slashing funds for public housing. The private prisons did not create the federal 1033 program that has supplied police departments across the country with M-16s and armored war vehicles.

Without a single private prison in the state system, California passed the most draconian three strikes law in the country in 1994 and more than two dozen other states followed suit. The building of the ideological and policy infrastructure of mass incarceration went hand in hand with dismantling the welfare state and shifting resources to corrections and policing. This bipartisan political project has reshaped and increasingly racialized attitudes toward poor people. We can't lay all this at the doorstep of the private prisons. They came late to the game with a sinister mission. Efforts to halt their expansion, while totally appropriate, are far from sufficient to stop the juggernaut of the prison industrial complex. Close all the private prisons and jails and release all their residents tomorrow (please do!) and the United States still has an incarceration rate nine times that of Japan or Norway, and four times that of the United Kingdom.

Devoting excessive attention to private prison operators lets a lot of other forces who are much more powerful off the hook. The alliance between top-level corrections bureaucrats and elected political leaders from both parties has pushed through harsh sentencing laws and prison building. Their combined efforts created a climate where until recently no aspiring politician could hope to win an election by appearing "soft on crime." Add to this the presence in states like California of "special interest" groups like the ultra-conservative prison guard unions that fund victims' rights organizations and dump much larger sums into election campaigns of "tough on crime" legislators and governors than CCA or GEO. Moreover, many state and local corrections departments have begun to operate along business lines, imposing user fees on people behind bars for everything from a booking fee to co-pays for health care to clothing. Some states even impose a charge to people who are put in solitary confinement. After release, parole divisions often add a monthly tariff so the former prisoner pays to be supervised, drug tested or placed under house arrest with an electronic monitoring device. This cost recovery approach extracts resources from poor people every bit as effectively as private institutions.

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In our single-minded focus on condemning the operators of private prisons, we also risk letting other prison profiteers off the hook. While recent campaigns have targeted companies like phone provider Securus Technologies and food service giant Aramark, major private equity firms involved in this business have avoided exposure. For example, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have helped facilitate the development of billions in lease revenue bonds, a scheme where state and local governments sell bonds for prison building without needing public approval. World-class construction companies like Turner Construction have reaped enormous profits from the building of state of the art carceral facilities.

And while we have many cases of abuse and death in private prisons, the institutions that have become synonymous with the horrors of what we do to people who are locked up from Guantánamo to Rikers Island to Pelican Bay to Angola are all state run. In fields like education and health care, the arguments against private provision are powerful. Many public institutions, public employee unions and pro-public sector activists in these sectors have a long tradition of caring for their clients, students and patients as well as respecting human rights. Such an ethos has not prevailed in the sphere of public sector corrections.

Mass incarceration is a project in which right-wing, tough-on-crime forces have thoroughly captured state institutions as well. Though some unions are beginning to change, mainstream labor organizations like the largest in the sector, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), have willingly ignored the racist, anti-working class agenda of the prison industrial complex. Instead they have fought to keep jobs for their members even when they are employed to oversee torturous regimes of solitary confinement and dehumanization of those behind bars.

Ultimately we don't want private prisons, but neither do we want more prisons and jails of any stripe. We already have far too many. Moreover, if we place too much emphasis on private prisons, we may also overlook the latest machinations of CCA and the GEO Group. In anticipation of decarceration of some scale, the private prison companies are moving into an area that social justice activists have staked out for years: "alternatives" to incarceration. The GEO Group owns BI, the largest electronic monitoring company in the United States, and has taken over more than a dozen day reporting centers for people on parole in California. CCA has also opened a re-entry division.

As always, these companies are thinking strategically, looking at potential future profit centers. This move presents a very different challenge for those opposed to mass incarceration. What is "alternative" about a re-entry or substance abuse program run for profit? But perhaps a more important question might be: Can state departments of corrections, with their own horrendous mass incarceration history, run these programs any better? Opposing the private prison companies is necessary but hardly sufficient. Putting everything back in the hands of the state doesn't solve the problem either. Perhaps rather than focus so much energy on opposing private prisons, it is time to think about what role a social movement might play in establishing and gaining resources for community-based programs that neither look at the world through the eyes of shareholders nor carry on the legacy of the punitive state institutions that currently house more than 90 percent of the people behind bars.

Copyright, Truthout. Reprinted with permission. May not be reprinted without permission.

James Kilgore is a writer, activist and educator based in Urbana, Illinois. He writes widely on issues of mass incarceration and social justice. His latest book is Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time. He can be contacted at, @waazn1 or