The Private Prison Project began without a clue.
It’s an assessment made with the privileged perspective now afforded by witnessing and feeling the visceral roller coaster response to the last two-and-a-half years: through an intensive crash course in the public records process, through a hellish jokescape of an election cycle, through the short-lived declaration that private prisons would be no more and then their swift return at the righthand side of our criminal justice system.
What PPP did have was the clear sense that for-profit incarceration is problematic and a personal problem for the American public. We’ve learned a lot, not least among them that the road to a more humane future is lined with false hopes, deliberate distractions, and good intentions that may provide comfort but no real change.
While we’ll continue to gather the contracts that keep these cogs active in our criminal justice machine and keep an eye on the ways that they’re expanding and incentivizing their wares, we also want to work with you and those you love to bring the mission a little closer to home.
Whether you’re an activist interested in helping shed light on how these companies take advantage of small town charms or a correctional officer concerned that a facility is opening (or closing) near you, whether you’ve served time in a private prison or you want to help from hundreds of miles away, please join our effort to bring greater, grassroots accountability to the for-profit incarceration industry.
Despite what you’ve heard, for-profit detention continues to reap the rewards of an incarceration system filled to the brim and facing an uncertain future. Over the two years, our FOIA requests have released thousands of documents that show how for-profit prisons have leveraged the legal system to their advantage, letting companies pick-and-choose inmates to off-load costs, ignore complaints and concerns, and create dangerous conditions for prisoners and staff alike.
This is all done while billions of taxpayer dollars are funneled into these private companies, which then pour millions into politicians’ campaigns to keep their growth going. With your help, we can provide needed scrutiny of an industry few are even aware exists.
- Request fees: Over the past year, we’ve spent hundreds of dollars on fees for primary documents from local, state, and federal agencies, and we need about $1,000 more.
- In-person investigation: We’ve already picked out and have researched a perfect case study for how private prisons, offered as lifelines to nearly bankrupt towns, end up controlling the local economy and politicians desperate to keep them happy, while offering few of the promised benefits. To send Beryl there for a week will cost another $1,000.
- Reporting: With more records, more interviews, more analysis, and more access for everyone interested in what for-profit prisons mean for policy and the public, we’ll be producing 12 new pieces over the next six months to help contextualize the human effects of the prison profit motive. Approximately $1,200 of the budget will go towards funding the time to work on these stories.
- Interactive elements: Let us lay it out. Maps will show who contracts for what where. Timelines will help visualize the growth of the industry. Graphics will help illustrate the revolving door between private and public sectors and the corporate stock prices. The project will organize all of these materials, so that researchers, legislators, journalists, activists, and individuals can more easily find the information they need. Approximately $800 will go towards building these interactive elements.
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If we raise more than our target goal, we’ll be able to expand the project, paying more request fees, spending more time reporting, an adding art and photography to illustrate the reporting.
The private correctional industry as we now see it grew out of eighties privatization fervor. Like so many corporate promises, the prospect of a quick fix has gotten many a government “partner” to sign on.
In response to overcrowded state prisons, private operators promise to build up quickly, hire local people at below-government rates and benefits, and spend less to hold more people.
And the host cities are often eager: They’re often towns with decimated industry and little hope of that changing. So build a prison. Garner the favor of a corporate sponsor, create jobs, and a healthy economy. It’s an appealing offer. And it’s legal.
The result is a rash of towns across America where a huge chunk of the population is incarcerated and where the city’s financial well-being relies on the continuance of tough-on-crime legislation and enforcement, no matter the human or economic cost.
- The Michigan legislature, led by a small town representative, that voted to allow the import of maximum security inmates from Vermont.
- The “deeply saddened and frustrated” Youngstown, Ohio mayor who wrote to the Director of Bureau of Prison, bemoaning the federal decision to move their inmates elsewhere in the wake of employee abuse while lauding CCA’s $180 million economic impact
- New Mexico town that cobbled together a prison population from a handful of agencies or the one in Arizona that pieced together an economy from a handful of prisons
All are symptoms of failing local economies looking for a “responsive corporate citizen” to give them a chance.
The profit motive is firmly entrenched in our criminal justice system. We’ve a long history of using inmate labor and fees to finance the incarceration apparatus and, consequently, incentivize it. Extracting that element from the system will be difficult, to say the least, particularly with players batting for multiple teams–government, companies, and “independent” regulatory bodies.
The Big Three
The giants of the for-profit prison system — Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), GEO Group, Management and Training Corporation (MTC) — pour millions into lobbying for legislation and conditions amenable to the perpetuation of incarceration; in return, they enjoy billions in profits and the cushion cash gives against financial penalties for any indiscretions that happen to be caught. CCA itself dismissed the impact of disciplinary fines, as “the total for such fines comprises approximately .19% of CCA’s contract receipts.” Coupled with the codependent attitude of the towns themselves, these companies are able to operate with a clear advantage. Then, the policies and contracts that have been borne of these liaisons bring themselves to bear upon those in the worst position to do anything about it.
Behind the Bars
Our eyes on the inside are the incarcerated themselves, but from the outset, their complaints have been virtually inaccessible. Prisoners, public and private, are subjected to a strict series of procedural complaint requirements; individual grievance records are kept internally, meaning that to revisit them would require sometimes thousands of dollars for search time alone. Functionally, the private operators have often been given full responsibility over grievance resolution.
Employees, too, face the same risks faced as all correctional officers, yet they lack many of the same methods of relief. The absence of government benefits contributes to much of the cost-savings that private facilities actually provide, and their employees must contend with the added pressure of reporting negative incidents in the face of shareholder scrutiny.
We know that public jail and prison operators get kickbacks on commissary, phone calls, and the sale of inmate labor. How much private operators make on such side revenue remains a mystery.We’re barely allowed to know how much th
ey’re paying to hold people they believe are in the country illegally. But we do know that corporations have put big bucks into encouraging their detainment.
Records that would otherwise be public are withheld from disclosure. But despite that, it’s become clear that the promise of one low price has come with all sorts of caveats. Look at Lake Erie, where the switch to privatization has meant more aid from local services. Or Torrance County, where added medical expenses have cost the town thousands more than it had anticipated. Or any of the multiple towns left holding defaulted bonds after their prison promises just didn’t pan out. By withholding their records, it’s nearly impossible to get a clear picture of just how accurate their sales pitches actually are.
Refuse To Know Nothing
Your support will help tell the story of the lives behind the contracts, amplifying the unheard voices on both sides of these agreements. By showing the concrete implications for towns that host private prisons, and the near impossibility of escape from within this system, we’ll show how widespread the practical challenges are across this debate.