It is time to end the practice of incarceration for profit

By JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN, Contributing Columnist

Over the past few decades there has been a dramatic increase in the privatization of our nation’s prisons and jails. That growth has been accompanied by increasing scrutiny of private prison operations as one report after another has revealed disturbing conditions inside those detention facilities.

Last month the Department of Justice Inspector General issued a report that concluded that private sector prisons are less secure and less safe, for both inmates and staff, than Bureau of Prisons facilities. The Justice Department then announced that over the next five years it would cease using private prisons.

If we are paying attention to what’s best for our society, the Department of Justice’s action should be just the beginning of the elimination of private prisons and other detention facilities. You may not know this, but the corporations that own private prisons also operate jail facilities in cities throughout Orange County, where elected officials have handed over control of this important public safety function.

A brief published in June by the non-profit research organization In the Public Interest found that people incarcerated in prisons operated by for-profit companies, like Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, “have higher rates of recidivism than people incarcerated in publicly managed prisons. Evidence also suggests that prison telephone and video call companies make business decisions that increase the likelihood that prisoners subjected to their services will return to prison or jail.”

What’s more, operating correctional facilities arguably does not even constitute the core business of the largest private prison companies. Business Insider has reported that in 2013 that Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group requested that the Internal Revenue Service allow them to restructure as Real Estate Investment Trusts, to allow them to significantly reduce or even eliminate their corporate tax liability.

In other words, these companies are only nominally prison companies – they are really real estate companies.

And it’s real estate development where they make their big money off of taxpayers. According to the Washington Post, in 2014 CCA contracted with the Obama administration to build a $1 billion facility in Texas to “detain women and children from Central America seeking U.S. asylum.” The Post reported that the facility generated 14 percent of the company’s revenue and led to a year of record profits.

So how did these companies invade and inject profiteering into an industry that’s aim should be in helping to create a more just and fair society?

Their influence is well documented. As the Washington Post report determined, since 1989 CCA and GEO have contributed $10 million to candidates and another $25 million to lobbying efforts. Those “investments” have enabled the companies to have significant input into the enactment of laws that increase demand for the services they provide. In other words, they have pushed for criminal justice policies that have increasingly relied on incarceration, all motivated by their own profit.

Private prisons have been exposed for their poor performance, dangerous conditions and bad investments for taxpayers. The time is now for federal, state and local governments to act in concert, restore integrity to the correctional system, and take detention out of the hands of profiteers.

Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

Publication Date: September 30, 2016