Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa county, Arizona, orders illegal immigrants to be moved into a separate area of a detention centre. Photograph: Ross D Franklin/AP
In the past few decades, changes in sentencing laws and get-tough-on-crime policies have led to an explosion in America's prison population. Funding this incarceration binge has been an enormous drain on taxpayer dollars, with some states now spending more to lock up their citizens than to provide their children with education. It's difficult to spin anything positive out of that scenario, but as it turns out, even this blackest of clouds has a silver lining – silver as in dollars, that is, for the private prison industry.
In 2010, two of the largest private prison companies in America, GEO Group, Inc and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) generated over $4bn dollars in profit between them. Their respective CEOs, George Zoley and Damon Hininger, each earned well in excess of $3m in 2010. Although there have been some concerns that any relaxation of sentencing or drug laws might negatively impact their bottom line (profit), they remain confident in their ability to drum up new ways of generating their taxpayer-funded commodities (also known as inmates): lobbying California for their excess prisoners being one; caging juveniles on trivial charges another. But the favorite, by a long shot, is the accelerated drive to lock up America's immigrants.
So far, these strategies seem to be working nicely. In their 2011 third-quarter earnings report, the GEO group proudly announced an increase in profits from the previous year. This joyous news can be at least partially attributed to changes in immigration law, particularly in states like Arizona and Oklahoma, which allow for, among other things, the indefinite detention of illegal immigrants, including those whose asylum proceedings are underway. The majority of immigrants who are picked up by law enforcement officials, mostly on civil charges, like being caught with a broken tail light for instance, will end up in privately run prisons. In many of these facilities, they will be charged $5 per minute to call their loved ones, whilst earning $1 per day for their labor, from which the corporation running the facility will profit.
According to an investigation by NPR, in 2008, two men, allegedly from CCA, showed up in a small Arizona town, close to the Mexican border to pitch the construction of a new prison specifically to house women and children who were illegal immigrants. Local officials were not convinced that the prison could be kept full, but that is, perhaps, because they were unaware that, at the time, CCA was one of the key groups involved in drafting and promoting the Arizona Senate Bill 1070 (which requires police to lock up anyone who cannot prove they came to the US legally), under the auspices of a secretive group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which specializes in model legislation.
It's hard to think of a more cynical way to earn one's fortune than to devise means of placing innocent children in prison. But if no one's going to stop you, then why the hell not?
It's not all sunshine and roses in private prison land, however. These dens of inequity were sold to the public as super-efficient, money-saving, job-creating dream machines. The trouble is, most of the savings are derived from hiring too few prison guards and paying them on average 30-40% less than their counterparts in government-run prisons. According to Brian Dawe, executive director of the American Correctional Officers (ACO), an organization that promotes the well-being and safety of corrections officers (COs), no self-respecting CO wants to work in a private prison – where their chances of being assaulted are 49% higher, where escapes are commonplace, where riots are frequent and where the staff are ill-equipped to cope.
It might seem counterintuitive to create conditions that are conducive to outbreaks of violence, until you realize that violence is good for business. Inmates who act out tend to get time added to their sentence. Time added to sentences means more money, and more money is exactly what the CEOs and their shareholders are interested in.
This brings me to what the ACLU's David Shapiro, who authored therecent report Banking on Bondage, calls a "fundamentally flawed incentive". In a sane society, the purpose of a prison should be to keep the public safe. The goal should not be to encourage criminal behavior or to find new ways to incriminate people, so that certain private individuals can line their pockets.
It's an added kick in the face that these corporations which profit from human misery are doing so at the taxpayers' expense and to the detriment of public safety. But until the public cries foul, there will be no stopping them.
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