Who Profits From the Prison Boom?

For decades, private-prison companies have been active members of a powerful lobby responsible for numerous laws that have put millions of people behind bars. In large part because of these laws, the country's prison population has ballooned from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.3 million in 2009, greater than that of any other nation in the world.

Lobbying for More Prisoners 

Company Benefits By Drafting Laws That Increase Prison Population

For decades, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and other private-prison companies have been active members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a powerful lobby based in Washington, D.C., responsible for numerous laws that have put millions of people behind bars.

With more than 2,000 state legislators and nearly 250 corporate and private-foundation members, ALEC represents a formidable power broker in state capitols across the country.

ALEC is comprised of nine task forces, each responsible for developing what it describes as "model legislation"—essentially, a wish list of laws addressing subjects they would like to see passed in states. Over the past several decades, private-prison operators like CCA and GEO Group have worked with ALEC to ensure the passage of some of the nation's toughest laws that have lined their pockets and enriched their shareholders.

Today, a lot of information on ALEC's website, including any detailed information about the hundreds of pieces of model legislation it is developing, is only accessible to its paid members. But a general listing of model legislation it is working on or promoting in states across the country shows that immigration enforcement is high on the to-do list, including a bill that mirrors Arizona's SB1070 law called the No Sanctuary Cities for Illegal Immigrants Act.

Not surprisingly, CCA has very close political ties to the Arizona legislature and the office of Gov. Jan Brewer. (Click here to see the connection and who else is involved.)

While it is not unusual for private industry to work closely with government officials or to lobby for laws to support their business interests, this relationship gets more critics because CCA is profiting off the arrest, incarceration and misery of human beings.

One of ALEC's main task forces is the Public Safety and Elections Task Force (formerly known as Criminal Justice and Homeland Security), which oversees the drafting of model bills that often serve as the basis for criminal-justice legislation. For years, the criminal-justice task force was co-chaired by high-ranking CCA executives.

In 1995, when ALEC was publishing the results of its annual scorecard (it's now only visible to paid members), here's how it described its criminal-justice task forces: "The busiest Task Force is Criminal Justice which had 199 bills introduced. The anti-crime legislation with the most enactments was the Truth in Sentencing Act (inmates serve at least 85 percent of their sentence) which became law in 25 states."

ALEC's "Habitual Offender/Three Strikes" bills (life imprisonment for a third violent felony) passed in 11 states.

In large part because of these laws, the country's prison population has ballooned from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.3 million in 2009, greater than that of any other nation in the world. Including the number of people on probation and parole in this country, more than 7 million people—one out of every 31—lives under the control of the U.S. criminal-justice system, and 60 percent of them are from traditionally underrepresented groups, such as Blacks and Latinos.

This rapid rise in prisoners and parolees has been a windfall for the private-prison industry, which has been not only a major player but also a major benefactor of ALEC's lobbying efforts over the years.

Private-prison companies deny that they pursue and lobby for legislation that would keep their prison beds filled. In its written response to DiversityInc, CCA said it does not lobby lawmakers to increase jail time or push for longer sentences under any circumstance, noting that it "educates officials on the benefits of public-private partnership but does not lobby on crime and sentencing policies."

"ALEC has taken credit over the years for many of the kinds of state [laws] that have greatly expanded our prison population … and caused so much racial disparity," says Judith Greene, a policy analyst with Justice Strategies, a nonprofit criminal-justice policy research group.

In 2009, 826 of ALEC model legislations were introduced in states and 115 were enacted. Although CCA executives are currently not chairing ALEC's criminal-justice task force, one of its top executives, Laurie Shanblum, the senior director of partnership development, is an active member.

Sitting alongside Shanblum on this task force is Russell Pearce, the Arizona senator who sponsored SB1070.

Political Ties Run Deep

The industry's political connections and the endless revolving door between the private-prison industry and the government have raised eyebrows over the years.

Viewed through this lens, it's little wonder anti-immigration laws like the one recently passed in Arizona and being weighed in so many other states have so many civil-rights advocates worried. Just as the U.S. war on drugs disproportionately impacted Blacks, this latest war is being waged overwhelmingly against undocumented immigrants, most of them Latino.

Consider this statistic: Of the 387,790 undocumented immigrants removed by ICE in fiscal year 2009, 71 percent were from Mexico and 20 percent were from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. And this latest windfall of prison beds is being facilitated by the same tight connections between the private-prison industry, lawmakers and the industry's powerful and well-funded lobby.

"The basic capitalist business model is 'Expand or die,'" Greene says. "You can't stand pat and be successful. So once that comes into play, it becomes an extremely perverse pressure for growth."

The System Expands, the Target Shifts

When private prisons were actively courting state lawmakers, companies such as CCA and GEO as well as their lobbyists gave $3.3 million to state-level candidates in the 2002 and 2004 election cycles, favoring states with some of the toughest sentencing laws, according to a 2006 report authored by Edwin Bender, director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, which tracks state campaign funding and lobbying.

"Companies favored states that had enacted legislation to lengthen the sentence given to any offender convicted of a felony for the third time," Bender says. "Private-prison interests gave almost $2.1 million in 22 states that had a so-called 'three-strikes law,' compared with $1.2 million in 22 states that did not."

Florida, whose inmate population surged from 53,000 to 101,175 between 1993 and 2010, was the biggest benefactor, with candidates and political parties there receiving $647,600, or almost 20 percent of the contributions, between 2002 and 2004, Bender says.

According to Bender, the private- prison money trail took a decided turn in 2005, when the immigration crackdown got under way in earnest and federal lawmakers were debating how to meet the growing need for detention beds.

That year, CCA alone paid close to $3.5 million for lobbying focused on immigration and national security. "One of its key lobbyists was Philip J. Perry, son-in-law of Vice President Dick Cheney, who was appointed general counsel for DHS," according to Stokely Baksh and Renee Feltz, who authored the award-winning Business of Detention project, examining private detention centers for undocumented immigrants. "As the immigration debate continued in 2007, CCA spent $3.25 million lobbying members of Congress to approve funding that would ultimately lead to increased spending on immigration detention," they write.

All told, CCA spent $14.8 million lobbying the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Office of Management and Budget, the Bureau of Prisons, both houses of Congress, and others between 2003 and 2010.

"Profits by no means created the machinery of mass incarceration," says Greene. "But profits oil the machinery, keep it humming and speed its growth."


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