Considering the Policy Consequences of Private Prisons

In a letter sent to 48 states, Corrections Corporation of America asks states to consider the “benefits of partnership corrections.” In essence, the company offers to buy up state prisons:

But there’s a catch…the states must guarantee that are there are enough prisoners to ensure that the venture is profitable to the company. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) has reached out to 48 states as part of a $250 million plan to own existing prisons and manage their operations. But in return CCA wants a 20-year contract and assurances that the state will keep the prisons at least 90% full.

Via Barry Ritholtz, “I guess the marijuana laws cannot be overturned then or it would violate this 20 year contract.” More at HuffPo.

Adam Gopnik in his must read New Yorker article, The Caging of America:

The companies are paid by the state, and their profit depends on spending as little as possible on the prisoners and the prisons. It’s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible. No more chilling document exists in recent American life than the 2005 annual report of the biggest of these firms, the Corrections Corporation of America. Here the company (which spends millions lobbying legislators) is obliged to caution its investors about the risk that somehow, somewhere, someone might turn off the spigot of convicted men:

Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. . . . The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction 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.

Brecht could hardly have imagined such a document: a capitalist enterprise that feeds on the misery of man trying as hard as it can to be sure that nothing is done to decrease that misery.

There is some small hope that we are beginning to recognize the dangers of going down that path. Salon reports that a nationwide campaign to stem investments in private corrections companies is gathering steam. And the largest ever proposed expansion of private prisons was voted down this month in the Florida Senate.