Since the election of President Donald Trump and the installment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, there has been a concerning shift in the approach and rhetoric around criminal justice — one that may prove to be a boon for for-profit private prisons.
Most recently, Attorney General Sessions’ new sentencing directive to federal prosecutors enforcing mandatory minimums feels like a return to the misguided “tough on crime” policy approaches that led to the United States garnering the title of largest jailer in the world.
By ensuring that people serve the longest sentences possible, the attorney general’s directive raises taxpayer costs with no proven public safety benefit, and will unquestionably hit people of color the hardest. This policy shift, combined with one of Sessions’ first acts to rescind an Obama administration plan to phase out the federal use of for-profit private prisons, sends a clear message that private prisons are here to stay under a Trump administration. It’s no surprise that in the days after Trump’s election, private prison stocks boomed, as they now had likely allies in the administration.
With nearly 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, resulting in more than $80 billion in annual spending on corrections, the outlook for private prison contracts are promising.
So, what is a private prison? Let’s be clear: It is a for-profit private company that uses taxpayer dollars as a key revenue source to operate and manage prisons, jails and detention centers. They depend on large incarcerated populations as revenue streams, generating significant amounts of money off the backs of poor people and people of color.
In essence, companies like GEO and Core Civic, the country’s two largest for-profit private prison companies, have revenue models that are largely dependent on people going to prison, staying there as long as possible, and likely returning after release. In fact, over the last 30 years, this lucrative model has garnered the two companies consistent revenue, topping out with just over $4 billion in 2016.
Since their inception in the 1980s for-profit private prison companies have claimed to be a lower cost and more efficient alternative for governments to manage prisons, jails, and detention centers across the country. However, over three decades of contracts have shown the fallacy of these claims.
Throughout their history for-profit private prisons have been fraught with numerous allegations and lawsuits detailing abuse and neglect, poor working conditions for their employees, and inconclusive reports on their ability to save money for the government. Based on this evidence, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) consistently advocated for ending their use.
Yet, private prisons have outsized influence due to their sizeable revenue streams. As JPI chronicled in the report “Gaming the System,” for-profit private prison companies have been successful by implementing “pay for play” politics. Through a combination of giving directly to political campaigns to curry favor with policymakers, hiring lobbyists to regurgitate their talking points in legislatures across the country, and building key relationships and associations by tapping into the revolving door between public and private interest, private prison companies have been successful at expanding their market share. Not only have they secured more contracts — some with bed guarantees — to secure their foothold on justice system revenue, they’ve begun diversifying their business interests into other criminal justice related services such as electronic monitoring, prison transportation, and re-entry and rehabilitation services.
Throughout JPI’s 20 years we have seen firsthand the damage that poor public policy can have on communities and our incarceration rates. We need better investments in communities, not subsidizing for-profit private prisons with taxpayer funds that ultimately hurt poor communities of color. Decades of research have shown that draconian sentence structures and approaches to justice are costly and ineffective to enhancing public safety and positive community outcomes.
Tying a profit motive to incarcerating people runs counter to reducing prison populations, and stands against the justice Americans deserve.