Today, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill) introduced the Justice is Not for Sale Act, a comprehensive bill that outlaws the use of for-profit prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers. The bill is one of the boldest attempts to undo the influence of corporations that have turned mass incarceration and immigration detention into a multi-billion dollar industry.
See Grassroots Leadership’s press statement on the issue here. We wanted to explore in more depth what some of the impacts of legislation to ban private prisons may be.
1) Ending private prisons would require a meaningful reduction in mass incarceration and lawmakers should push to end the inherent racial disparities evident in for-profit prisons
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2013, there were 31,900 federal prisoners and 92,100 state prisoners in for-profit prisons. Based on these numbers, banning private prisons at the federal and state level would necessitate a significant 124,000 prison bed reduction. Taking these for-profit prison beds off-line and eliminating the option of privatization should spark lawmakers to prioritize efforts to reduce prison populations and minimize the demand for new prison beds. In fact, the Justice is Not For Sale Act includes a significant provision to reduce the prison system by reinstating federal parole.
Furthermore, banning private prisons should have an impact on the racist implications of locking people up for profit. While black and brown folks are disproportionately incarcerated at all levels of the criminal justice and immigrant detention systems, evidence points to an especially insidious racial disparity in private prisons. NPR reports how recent research (from UC Berkeley doctoral student and Grassroots Leadership board member Christopher Petrella) shows the racial disparities in private prisons housing state prisoners are even greater than in publicly run prisons because private prisons deliberately exclude people with high medical care costs from their contracts. While pushing to end private prisons and reduce prison populations, lawmakers should take note of the profound racial disparities in our criminal justice system.
2) Ending the immigrant detention quota could cut ICE detention dramatically
Today, an amendment to the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations bill requires that 34,000 immigrant detention beds be maintained at taxpayer expense, despite the fact that detention is costly, unnecessary, and inhumane. The Justice Is Not For Sale Act eliminates this immigrant detention quota. Main beneficiaries of the quota are two private prison corporations, Corrections Corporation of America, and GEO Group, which dominate the immigrant detention industry and are making record profits at the expense of communities and taxpayers. Together, they made almost $478 million in revenue in 2014 from ICE detention. Nearly two thirds of immigrants in detention are incarcerated in these privately operated facilities, so banning for-profit prisons would dramatically reduce bed space and force a reevaluation of mass immigrant detention.
3) Eliminating private prison lobbying and campaign contributions will help reduce incentives for incarceration in criminal justice and immigration systems
In order to ensure its profits, the private prison industry has taken an active role in influencing legislation and supporting lawmakers that will protect their interests. One of the best known examples of this influence is the industry’s participation in the drafting of Arizona’s SB 1070, the anti-immigrant legislation that effectively legalized racial profiling of anyone law enforcement assumed be an undocumented migrant and authorizing them to be detained in local lockups. SB 1070 was created during closed-door meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council and NPR reported that two Corrections Corporation of America officials were present as corporate members.
Less known is the pervasive influence of the industry on political decision making. Together, CCA and GEO have gifted more than $10 million to candidates since 1989 and have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts. Both companies deploy lobbyists to states across the country over the last eight years, CCA with 178 lobbyists out across 32 states and GEO Group with 68 lobbyists to 16 states
A clear priority for the private prison industry has been lobbying on immigrant detention and appropriations policies at the federal level. Together, between 2008-2014 CCA and GEO have spent more than $11 million in quarters when they lobbied on immigration issues and CCA spent nearly $10 million during the same time period in quarters when they lobbied on the DHS Appropriations Committee, the point of control for the quota.
4) Banning private prisons would help stop the practice of shipping prisoners away to out-of-state private prisons
Today, four states - California, Idaho, Hawaii, and Vermont - collectively incarcerate more than 8,000 prisoners in private, for-profit prisons across state lines. In each case, state officials have pointed to overcrowding as justification for out-of-state transfers, despite evidence that maintaining connections with family and loved ones is critical to rehabilitation and successful reentry upon release.
Banning private prisons at the state level would force the immediate return of more than 8,000 prisoners who have been shipped away for corporate gain — out of sight and mind. In the long term, eliminating the option of resorting to private prison beds, regardless of location, should lead policy-makers to prioritize legislation that provides sustainable, humane solutions to mass incarceration.
5) Ending private prisons would eliminate the segregated and unequal system of immigrant prisons
In the federal prisons system, immigrants are often segregated into a series of for-profit and unequal prisons called “Criminal Alien Requirement” prisons. These prisons are growing thanks to the mass criminal prosecution of immigrants under Operation Streamline and related programs.
Early this year, one of these CAR private prisons in Willacy County, Texas erupted into a major uprising. Incarcerated immigrants and advocates had for years been warning that these prisons are tinderboxes of horrendous conditions waiting to explode, and in fact this was third major uprising sparked by horrendous prison conditions in one of these private prisons.
Ending private prisons at the federal level would require closing these unequal and segregated immigrants prisons. Lawmakers and the Obama administration should also end the practice of criminalizing migration in order to continue to reduce the federal prison population.
6) Ending private prisons would curb the current mass family detention system
Since the fall of 2014, one kind of facility has been driving huge profits for the two biggest private prison corporations: massive detention camps for refugee women and their children.
GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) reported massive profits to their shareholders this year. In early August, GEO Group told shareholders on a telephonic briefing that they could look forward to an additional $20 million in annual revenues at the Karnes family detention camp. For their part, CCA told shareholders that the Dilley family detention camp was one of the reasons they could celebrate “double-digit growth” and that the camp would “contribute meaningfully to our long-term growth." CCA execs were also excited to report that the Dilley camp alone brought them $65.9 million in revenue for just the second quarter of 2015.
Almost all of the family detention beds in the U.S. are privately operated, meaning that the government pays out big to private prisons to lock up women and children seeking asylum in the U.S. There has been a vibrant campaign to end family detention, including massive mobilizations, multiple judges ruling against it and hunger strikes inside. Despite all of this, the family detention camps remain open for business with contracts from an administration that is unable or unwilling to close the camps. A ban on private prisons could mean the end of mass family detention, and the Justice is Not For Sale Act expressedly ends the practice of family detention as we know it.
7) Ending private prisons puts some really crummy corporations out of business!
Private prison corporations make their money off of human misery. The lack of respect for human dignity inherent in the industry is showcased in the egregious conditions in the prisons and detention centers they operate. The largest of these companies, Corrections Corporation of America, has a 30+ year legacy of medical neglect, sexual assault, riots, escapes, and financial scandals. This includes the Idaho Correctional Center, nicknamed the “Gladiator School” where guards allegedly allowed and even incited violent attacks as a tool of social control. Then there’s Management & Training Corp (MTC), which presided over riots in their Kingman and Willacy prisons, spurred by horrendous conditions and ill-trained staff. The GEO Group, another of the largest prison corporations, recently saw a hunger strike from moms at its Karnes family detention camp near San Antonio protesting deplorable food and medical care and the prolonged detention their children in a secure, prison environment.
Though these abuses are shocking, what else could be expected from an industry founded on the idea that you can sell prisons “just like you were selling cars, or real estate, or hamburgers?” This bill would put these corporations out of business and send a clear message that incarcerating more people should not be incentivized by a profit motive.