Profit Driven Prison Industrial Complex: The Economics of Incarceration in the USA

For every 100,000 Americans, 743 citizens sit behind bars


For anyone paying attention, there is no shortage of issues that fundamentally challenge the underpinning moral infrastructure of American society and the values it claims to uphold. Under the conceptual illusion of liberty, few things are more sobering than the amount of Americans who will spend the rest of their lives in an isolated correctional facility – ostensibly, being corrected.

The United States of America has long held the highest incarceration rate in the world , far surpassing any other nation. For every 100,000 Americans, 743 citizens sit behind bars. Presently, the prison population in America consists of more than six million people, a number exceeding the amount of prisoners held in the gulags of the former Soviet Union  at any point in its history.
While miserable statistics illustrate some measure of the ongoing ethical calamity occurring in the detainment centers inside the land of the free, only a partial picture of the broader situation is painted. While the country faces an unprecedented economic and financial crisis, business is booming in other fields – namely, the private prison industry. Like any other business, these institutions are run for the purpose of turning a profit. State and federal prisons are contracted out to private companies who are paid a fixed amount to house each prisoner per day. Their profits result from spending the minimum amount of state or federal funds on each inmate, only to pocket the remaining capital. For the corrections conglomerates of America, prosperity depends on housing the maximum numbers of inmates for the longest potential time – as inexpensively as possible.
By allowing a profit-driven capitalist-enterprise model to operate over institutions that should rightfully be focused on rehabilitation, America has enthusiastically embraced a prison industrial complex. Under the promise of maintaining correctional facilities at a lower cost due to market competition, state and federal governments contract privately run companies to manage and staff prisons, even allowing the groups to design and construct facilities. The private prison industry is primarily led by two morally deficient entities, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections Corporation).  These companies amassed a combined revenue of over $2.9 billion in 2010 , not without situating themselves in the center of political influence.
 
The number of people imprisoned under state and federal custody increased 772% percent between 1970 and 2009 , largely due to the incredible influence private corporations wield against the American legal system. Because judicial leniency and sentencing reductions threaten the very business models of these private corporations, millions have been spent lobbying state officials and political candidates in an effort to influence harsher “zero tolerance” legislation and mandatory sentencing for many non-violent offenses. Political action committees assembled by private correctional corporations have lobbied over 3.3 million dollars to the political establishment since 2001 . An annual report released by the CCA in 2010 reiterates the importance of influencing legislation:
“The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. Legislation has been proposed in numerous jurisdictions that could lower minimum sentences for some non-violent crimes and make more inmates eligible for early release based on good behavior. Also, sentencing alternatives under consideration could put some offenders on probation with electronic monitoring who would otherwise be incarcerated. Similarly, reductions in crime rates or resources dedicated to prevent and enforce crime could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities.”
Considering today’s private prison population is over 17 times larger than the figure two decades earlier , the malleability of the judicial system under corporate influence is clear. The Corrections Corporation of America is the first and largest private prison company in the US, cofounded in 1983 by Tom Beasley, former Chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party. The CCA entered the market and overtly exploited Beasley’s political connections in an attempt to exert control over the entire prison system of Tennessee. Today, the company operates over sixty-five facilities and owns contracts with the US Marshal Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Bureau of Prisons. The GEO Group operates 118 detention centers throughout the United States, South Africa, UK, Australia and elsewhere. Under its original name, the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation was synonymous for the sadistic abuse of prisoners in its facilities , resulting in the termination of several contracts in 1999.
 
The political action committees assembled by private prison enterprises have also wielded incredible influence with respect to administering harsher immigration legislation . The number of illegal immigrants being incarcerated inside the United States is rising exponentially under Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency responsible for annually overseeing the imprisonment of 400,000 foreign nationals at the cost of over $1.9 billion on custody-related operations . The agency has come under heavy criticism for seeking to contract a 1,250-bed immigration detention facility in Essex County, New Jersey to a private company that shares intimate ties to New Jersey’s Governor, Chris Christie . Given the private prison industry’s dependence on immigration-detention contracts, the huge contributions of the prison lobby towards drafting Arizona’s recrementitious immigration law SB 1070  are all but unexpected. While the administration of Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer is lined with former private prison lobbyists, its Department of Corrections budget has been raised by $10 million, while all other Arizona state agencies are subject to budget cuts in 2012’s fiscal year .

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