By Molly Freeman
Photo courtesy of John S. Quarterman
For the private prison industry, there’s basically no such thing as good publicity if any at all. To be fair, it’s difficult to spin the moral foundation the industry is built on that more people will and should be incarcerated in this country, so why not make money off of them?
As with the nature of business, the whole point is to generate a profit. So what happens when an industry makes money off of incarcerating people and they want to make more money? Incarcerate more people.
Not only has this led to the U.S. becoming the country with the highest prison population—2.2 million people—but also the dehumanization of those prisoners because they have become a commodity within the private prison industry. They are victims of the private prison owners’ greed and there isn’t much they can do about it—especially because private prisons are not held to the same standards as government run facilities.
The private prison companies in the United States, such as Corrections Corporation of America, make billions of dollars a year on incarcerating individuals across the country. About 30 years ago, CCA was founded in Nashville and has grown to more than 60 facilities in the U.S. Another change occurring in the prison industry over the past three decades is the increase of prisoners by 500 percent.
But how do private prison companies make their money? They use what Katy Hall of the Huffington Post calls an “an aggressive business strategy.” Private prisons create space to house prisoners and receive contracts—which can last more than a decade—from government authorities with mandatory occupancy rates of up to 90 percent at a minimum.
The companies then turn around and use their profits to line the pockets of shareholder, create more beds to fill, and lobby state and federal agencies to deliver more inmates to these private prisons.
These aggressive business strategies sometimes leave a lot to be desired in prison conditions, such as the CCA-owned Lake Erie Correctional Institution which was labeled “in need of improvement” by prison inspectors earlier this year. A report filed by the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee found an increase in inmate-on-inmate assaults as well as inmate-on-staff assaults at LaECI.
Recently, the prison industry has been in the spotlight in California between a prisoner hunger strike that continues into its third week, the federal court ordering the release of nearly 10,000 inmates, and the transfer of 2,600 prisoners who are in danger of contracting a deadly disease in the overcrowded prisons. In addition, state lawmakers have called for an investigation into a report that claimed nearly 150 women were coerced into sterilization over the last decade.
Christopher Petrella, a contributor for Truth-Out.org, tells BTR that the Public Safety Realignment in California is not necessarily a resolution to the state’s problems.
“They’re not really reducing their roles; they’re simply, to a very large degree, they are shifting their prison population from the state level to the county and local level,” Petrella says. “A lot of these local facilities, of course, don’t necessarily have the infrastructure to support burgeoning prisoner populations.”
Additionally, Alex Freidmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, tells BTR that California has renewed their contracts with CCA through to 2016 in an effort to deal with the overcrowding problem in state facilities.
In other parts of the country though—specifically Texas, Mississippi, Idaho and Kentucky—CCA has lost five contracts. Freidmann explains this is, in part, due to the recession, which has caused states to stretch their budgets and cut corrections costs.
“One way to do that is to reduce their prison populations and once that happens states realize they don’t need as much prison bed space as they’ve been using. So they start cutting back on that and in some cases that includes private prison contracts,” says Freidmann.
For the private prisons that are still up and running, and being funded by state budgets, both Petrella and Freidmann have worked on the Private Prison Information Act. As Freidmann explains, their bill, the PPIA , is an extension of the Freedom of Information Act, which allows the public access to public information and records from federal agencies. FOIA does not, however, apply to private contractors, even if they are contracted by state governments.
Petrella also explains that PPIA would allow prisoners, families of prisoners, and private citizens access to information related to the operations of private prison companies in certain facilities. He also looks at PPIA as a way for private prison companies to prove their case that their facilities are actually superior to state-run prisons.
“What we’re trying to insist is we’re providing the private prison industry with an invitation to offer us evidence of all of the claims of success and efficacy that they’ve been making for the past 30 years,” he says. “They say that private prisons are more effective, show us the data. They say that private prisons are more efficient, show us the data.”
FOIA exists to hold state functions such as corrections and education accountable to the public because the people pay for these prison facilities and schools. Freidmann and Petrella are working to hold private prison companies like CCA as accountable as state-run facilities in order to make sure the taxpayers know what they’re paying for.
As much as the PPIA might shed some light on the seedy underbelly of the private prison industry—and there is no doubt that that exists—it will also allow activists and prisoners to hold the industry accountable for their actions. If the number of assaults goes up at a prison after a private companies takes it over, then the public will have access to those records. Whether PPIA leads the public to discover private prisons are in fact better than government facilities or that they’re much worse, at least there is some hope that some truth is being brought to the light.