Yesterday, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) released a report chronicling the political strategies of private prison companies “working to make money through harsh policies and longer sentences.” The report’s authors note that while the total number of people in prison increased less than 16 percent, the number of people held in private federal and state facilities increased by 120 and 33 percent, correspondingly. Government spending on corrections has soared since 1997 by 72 percent, up to $74 billion in 2007. And the private prison industry has raked in tremendous profits. Last year the two largest private prison companies — Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group — made over $2.9 billion in revenue.
JPI claims the private industry hasn’t merely responded to the nation’s incarceration woes, it has actively sought to create the market conditions (ie more prisoners) necessary to expand its business.
According to JPI, the private prison industry uses three strategies to influence public policy: lobbying, direct campaign contributions, and networking. The three main companies have contributed $835,514 to federal candidates and over $6 million to state politicians. They have also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on direct lobbying efforts. CCA has spent over $900,000 on federal lobbying and GEO spent anywhere from $120,000 to $199,992 in Florida alone during a short three-month span this year. Meanwhile, “the relationship between government officials and private prison companies has been part of the fabric of the industry from the start,” notes the report. The cofounder of CCA himself used to be the chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party.
The impact that the private prison industry has had is hard to deny. In Arizona, 30 of the 36 legislators who co-sponsored the state’s controversial immigration law that would undoubtedly put more immigrants behind bars received campaign contributions from private prison lobbyists or companies. Private prison businesses been involved in lobbying efforts related to a bill in Florida that would require privatizing all of the prisons in South Florida and have been heavily involved in appropriations bills on the federal level.
Tracy Velázquez, executive director of JPI recommends that we “take a hard look at what the cost of this influence is, both to taxpayers and to the community as a whole, in terms of the policies being lobbied for and the outcomes for people put in private prisons.”