Rick Perry, Pay-for-Play Jailer

Rick Perry Pay-for-Play Jailer

Governor Rick Perry of Texas at a book signing at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

Given what we know about Gov. Rick Perry's keen predilection toward “crony capitalism,” we should not be surprised to learn that he's a big fan of private for-profit prisons.

Lobbyists and executives from that industry have contributed generously to Perry's re-election campaign, and he returned the favor by proposing policies that would benefit the prison industry.

“Coincidence?” asks Tim Murphy of Mother Jones magazine in a major article that examines the governor's relationships with the for-profit prison industry.

Murphy writes: “Under the banner of closing the state's $27 billion deficit last winter, Texas Gov. Rick Perry floated a proposal to privatize the state's prison health care network. Whether the plan would actually save the state any money was a matter of debate, but one thing was clear: The move would have been a boon for private-prison executives and lobbyists, including Perry's former chief of staff, who had donated generously to his 2010 reelection campaign.”

He added, “The plan met bipartisan resistance in the state Legislature, but it was just one of a handful of recent proposals by Perry's office that would have benefited the industry – all in the name of deficit reduction.”

Murphy goes on to tell us that private prisons are a big business in Texas, where the combination of federal immigration policies and one of the nation's largest inmate populations has led to a boom in construction over the last two decades.

Murphy continues: “As governor, Perry, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, has supported privatizing everything from public lands to highways, but according to Scott Henson, a criminal-justice watchdog who runs the blog Grits for Breakfast, the governor had remained largely quiet on the prisons issue – until this year. That coincided with an influx of campaign contributions from private-prison executives and lobbyists, among them his former top aide, Michael Toomey, a political powerbroker who represents the nation's largest private corrections contractor, Corrections Corporation of America [CCA].”

CCA, per its web site “provides health care services to male and female inmates and youthful offenders who are housed in local jails, detention facilities, and correctional institutions around the country.”

And there are more private prisons in Texas than in any other state in the country. In Texas, they are charged with supervising 75,000 inmates.

(Toomey told Mother Jones he had not lobbied Perry's office or the state Legislature on the prison health care plan; Perry's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)

For-profit private prison companies primarily use three strategies to influence policy: lobbying; direct campaign contributions; and building relationships, networks and associations. The industry's so-called “think tank,” known as ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), employs all three strategies and also undertakes to prepare “templates” for legislation that will benefit its members.

For example, there is significant evidence that ALEC worked with Arizona officials in the crafting of the infamous “papers please” legislation. It is also reported that, on the basis of that work, it was also able to help Alabama with the crafting of its immigration law.

Private prison companies make substantial contributions to help support ALEC, and senior executives from the for-profit prison industry often work there on temporary assignments.

Given Perry's record in similar situations – for example, the contributions from Merck & Co. and their relationship to Perry's executive order mandating HTD inoculations to help young Texas girls avoid cervical cancer – the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) was not a minute too late in issuing a new report, “Gaming the System: How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies Promote Ineffective Incarceration Policies.”

The report examines how private prison companies are able to influence legislators and criminal justice policy, a collaboration that ultimately results in harsher criminal justice policies and the incarceration of more people, the JPI asserts.

The report says that, over the past 15 years, the number of people held in all prisons in the United States has increased by 49.6 percent. Private prison populations, during the same period, increased by 353.7 percent, according to recent federal statistic.

The providers of private prisons have been reaping the benefits. In 2010 alone, the CCA and the GEO Group, the two largest private prison companies, had combined revenues of $2.9 billion.

The JPI report says, “not only have private prison companies benefited from this increased incarceration, but they have helped fuel it.”

The report notes a “triangle of influence” built on campaign contributions, lobbying and relationships with current and former elected and appointed officials. Through this strategy, private prison companies have gained access to local, state and federal policy makers and have back-channel influence to pass legislation that puts more people behind bars, adds to private prison populations and generates tremendous profits at US taxpayers' expense.

“For-profit companies exercise their political influence to protect their market share, which in the case of corporations like GEO Group and CCA primarily means the number of people locked up behind bars,” said Tracy Velázquez, executive director of JPI. “We need to 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.

“That their lobbying and political contributions is funded by taxpayers, through their profits on government contracts, makes it all the more important that people understand the role of private prisons in our political system,” Velasquez says.

Paul Ashton, principal author of “Gaming the System,” noted, “This report is built on concrete examples of the political strategies of private prison companies.

From noting campaign donations, $835,514 to federal candidates and $6,092,331 to state-level candidates since 2000, to the proposed plan from Ohio Gov. John Kasich to privatize five Ohio prisons followed by the appointment of a former CCA employee to run the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, 'Gaming the System' shows that private prison companies' interests lie in promoting their business through maintaining political relationships rather than saving taxpayer dollars and effectively ensuring public safety,” Ashton says.

Other organizations have also investigated the private prison industry and have their own serious concerns about their political influence. “In the South and Southwest, the private prison industry has consistently targeted poor
communities,” said Bob Libal, the Texas campaigns coordinator for Grassroots Leadership.

“We believe that it's important to fight, particularly in these communities, to end for-profit incarceration and reduce reliance on criminalization and detention, and ultimately build lasting movements for social justice. This important report helps shed light onto this particularly troubling industry,” he said.

Shakyra Diaz, policy director of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio added, “Research has shown that private prisons do not save taxpayer dollars and can in fact cost taxpayers more than public prisons. Additionally, privatizing prisons may undermine cost effective sentencing reforms and increase recidivism rates.

“Despite these well­documented concerns, private prison companies continue to promote policies that put money in their pockets and people behind bars.”

The JPI declared, “If states and the federal government are interested in providing cost-effective, proven public safety strategies, investments in private prison companies will not help achieve that goal. Gaming the System includes a number of recommendations for criminal justice policies that are cost-effective and will improve public safety …”

The report says that states and the federal government “should look for real solutions to the problem of growing jail and prison populations. A number of states are already utilizing innovative strategies for reducing the number of people behind bars in their state. Reducing the number of people entering the justice system, and the amount of time that they spend there, can lower prison populations, making private, for-profit prisons unnecessary, and improving public safety and the lives of individuals.”

“Private prison companies have been very successful in their effort to promote harsher sentencing policies and the privatization of correctional systems, and when they win, we all lose,” added Tracy Velázquez, executive director of JPI.

“Taxpayers lose when their money is used to generate profits for shareholders and to promote policies that increase incarceration; communities lose when policies proven to be ineffective for public safety are pushed through state legislatures, and people involved in the criminal justice system lose when they are locked up in underfunded and sometimes unsafe facilities,” she says.

But they have not been anywhere near as successful in operating professional-grade lockups. The federal government and several states have shut down a number of facilities that were found to be overcrowded, unsafe and deficient in health and hygiene. There have been a number of deaths in detention. There has also been a lack of transparency in dealings between the public and several leading private prison companies.

According to Paul Ashton, principal author of the report, “While private prison companies may try to present themselves as just meeting existing demand for prison beds and responding to current market conditions, in fact they have worked hard over the past decade to create markets for their product. As revenues of private prison companies have grown over the past decade, the companies have had more resources with which to build political power, and they have used this power to promote policies that lead to higher rates of incarceration.”

He added: “As policymakers and the public are increasingly coming to understand that incarceration is not only breaking the bank, but it's also not making us safer, will this shrink the influence of private prison companies? Or will they use their growing financial muscle to consolidate and expand into even more areas of the justice system?”

He continues: “Much will depend on the extent that people understand the role for-profit private prison companies have already played in raising incarceration rates and harming people and communities, and take steps to ensure that in the future, community safety and well-being, and not profits, drive our justice policies. One thing is certain: in this political game, the private prison industry will look out for their own interests,” Ashton concludes.