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August 30, 2014, 2:20 pm

Prisons for profit on the rise

A host of arguments can be made to explain the explosive growth in America’s prison population, half of which is African-American. Those arguments range from the nation’s War on Drugs to a twisted subculture within the African-American community that views a prison sentence almost as a rite of passage for young Black males.

And of course, some people are just threats to society and need to be locked up.

Whatever the interrelated reasons, the United States has emerged as the nation with the highest number of adults and juveniles serving time — approximately 2.5 million people. The costs of housing these men and women have become so high that many states are looking for alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders, or to the private prison industry to help defray the expenditures. Since the 1990s the rise of for-profit prisons have emerged as a major facet of the nation’s corrections system — and companies like Corrections Corporation of America and the Geo Group have seized upon a lucrative opportunity to provide needed services, especially to cash-strapped state governments looking for ways to reduce the cost of corrections.

“The imprisonment of human beings at record levels is both a moral failure and an economic one — especially at a time when more and more Americans are struggling to make ends meet, and when state governments confront enormous fiscal crises,” said David Shapiro, staff attorney, National Prison Project in the ACLU-sponsored report, “Banking on Bondage – Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration.” “This report finds, however, that mass incarceration provides a gigantic windfall for one special interest group — the private prison industry — even as current incarceration levels harm the country as a whole. While the nation’s unprecedented rate of imprisonment deprives individuals of freedom, wrests loved ones from their families and drains the resources of governments, communities and taxpayers, the private prison industry reaps lucrative rewards. As the public good suffers from mass incarceration, private prison companies obtain more and more government dollars, and private prison executives at the leading companies rake in enormous compensation packages, in some cases totaling millions of dollars.”

Private prisons promise substantial savings in taxpayer dollars along with other financial perks. CCA, one of the leading providers of for-profit prisons in the nation, recently sent letters to 48 states, offering to buy their facilities for a huge chunk of dough — $250 million toward the purchase of state prisons. In a time when the national economy is still limping and state budgets are shrinking, the state of Ohio found CCA’s “Corrections Investment Initiative” was an offer it couldn’t refuse.

A growing number of private citizens have also seen the financial benefits of sitting at the table of the private prison industry. Attorney Richard H. Glanton has served as a member of the board of directors of the GEO group since 1998. Clarence E. Anthony, president and CEO of Anthony Government Solutions, Inc., a government relations consulting firm, also sits on the GEO Group’s board of directors. But perhaps the most unexpected member of the board of directors of Corrections Corporation of America is the son of the first African-American Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall. Thurgood Marshall Jr., a partner in the law firm of Bingham McCutchen, has served as a director and member of the Nominating and Governance Committee of CCA since December 2002.

Attempts to interview Marshall were unsuccessful by Tribune press time. Reporters did speak briefly with Steve Owen, CCA’s director of public affairs, who politely said he would reach out to Marshall to see if he would grant a short phone interview.

Private prisons for adults were non-existent until the early 1980s, but between 1990 and 2009 the number of private prisons increased by approximately 1,600 percent. In 2010, the two largest private prison companies took in almost $3 billion dollars in revenue.

So who really benefits from private prisons? Research shows that the promised financial windfalls to taxpayers and state governments are not as substantial as promised. However, private prison companies have spent millions lobbying state and federal lawmakers.

“Certain private prison companies, according to a recent report by Detention Watch Network, spend large sums of money to lobby the House of Representatives, the Senate, and several federal agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which incarcerates over 200,000 prisoners at any given time, and the Department of Homeland Security, which detains over 30,000 immigrants at any given time,” Shapiro wrote in “Banking on Bondage.” “According to nonprofit groups, CCA alone spent over $18 million on federal lobbying between 1999 and 2009, often employing five or six firms at the same time and in 2010, CCA spent another $970,000 lobbying the federal government.”

Pennsylvania has managed to stay away from allowing private prison corporations to either take over or manage its facilities. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections spokesperson Susan McNaughton said there are a couple of counties with private facilities; Moshannon Valley Correctional Center in Clearfield County is one of them. McNaughton said that representatives from PDOC visited several private prison facilities in Louisiana, and decided the state did a better job.

“Pennsylvania hasn’t gone the route of prison privatization because think we can do a better job and the cost savings, such as lower salaries — while they may be immediate, will disappear as salaries increase,” said McNaughton. “It was that way under Governor Rendell, and remains so under Governor Corbett — we will not privatize our state facilities. Now there are some aspects of our prisons that we do privatize, such as drug and alcohol treatment, medical and mental health services — but that’s all we will consider.”