In the Public Interest (ITPI), which describes itself as “a comprehensive resource center on privatization and responsible contracting,” released a report this month titled CRIMINAL: How Lockup Quotas and “Low-Crime Taxes” Guarantee Profits for Private Prison Corporations. The report provides information about “the prevalence of prison occupancy guarantee provisions in prison privatization contracts.” ITPI said that it had “identified 77 county and state-level private facilities nationwide and collected and analyzed 62 contracts from these facilities.” Of the contracts that ITPI reviewed, 65% contained occupancy requirements that ranged between 80% and 100%–with 90% being the most frequent quota guarantee.
ITPI found that the states of Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Virginia were locked into contracts with the highest occupancy guarantee requirements. All four states had quotas requiring an occupancy rate between 95% and 100%.
Here are some state-specific findings from the report:
Colorado: Though crime has dropped by a third in the past decade, an occupancy requirement covering three for-profit prisons has forced taxpayers to pay an additional $2 million.
Arizona: Three Arizona for-profit prison contracts have a staggering 100% quota, even though a 2012 analysis from Tucson Citizen shows that the company’s per-day charge for each prisoner has increased an average of 13.9% over the life of the contracts.
Ohio: A 20-year deal to privately operate the Lake Erie Correctional Institution includes a 90% quota, and has contributed to cutting corners on safety, including overcrowding, areas without secure doors and an increase in crime both inside the prison and the surrounding community.
What do the occupancy quotas mean for the people who live in the counties and states that enter into these contracts with for-profit prison corporations? The quotas can put tax payers “on the hook” for required payments due the corporations when occupancy levels fall below those agreed upon in the contracts. ITPI refers to these payments as a “low-crime tax.” In other words, taxpayers are—in effect—made responsible for guaranteeing profits for private prison corporations if there are too many empty prison cells.
Let’s look at an example from the state of Arizona:
In July of 2010, three violent inmates escaped from a privately run prison. Their escape led to a multi-state manhunt. “It took more than two weeks for authorities to apprehend two of the escapees, both of whom were subsequently charged in connection with the carjacking and murder of an Oklahoma couple who were driving through New Mexico.”
After that experience, corrections officials in Arizona stopped sending any new inmates to the 3,300-bed facility—which they described as “dysfunctional.” But, less than a year after the escape, Management & Training Corp., which is responsible for running the prison, threatened to sue the state of Arizona. You see, a “line in their contract guaranteed that the prison would remain 97 percent full.” The private prison company claimed that it had lost close to $10 million because of the reduced inmate population in its prison. What did the state do then? Why, officials renegotiated the contract—and ended up paying Management & Training Corp. “$3 million for empty beds as the company continued to address problems” at its prison facility.
Some experts have argued that the contracted quotas “create an incentive for policymakers to focus on filling empty prison beds, as opposed to pursuing long-term policy changes, such as sentencing reform, that could significantly reduce prison populations. In short, many states are effectively obligated to continue to incarcerate people regardless of crime rates and public safety needs, or otherwise hand over taxpayer dollars in order to satisfy private profit-making companies.”
Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer and criminal justice expert at the University of Texas School of Public Affairs and someone who has researched the rise of private prisons, said, “It’s really shortsighted public policy to do anything that ties the hands of the state. If there are these incentives to keep the private prisons full, then it is reducing the likelihood that states will adopt strategies to reduce prison costs by keeping more people out. When the beds are there, you don’t want to leave them empty.”
Is it any wonder that Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, the two largest private prison companies in this country, have been involved in pushing for a number of criminal justice policies—including mandatory minimum sentences, California’s three-strikes law, and continuing the War on Drugs—“that increase the number of inmates who enter and stay in prison.” ITPI reported that CCA and GEO Group have also contributed to legislation—“like Arizona Senate Bill 1070, requiring law enforcement to arrest anyone who cannot prove they entered the country legally when asked.” Legislation such as Arizona’s 1070 will most likely help to increase the number of detainees in privately-run federal immigration detention centers.
It appears that the private prison industry is aware that a harsh criminal justice system is beneficial to its business. Following is a statement from CCA’s 2010 annual report:
The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards 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. Legislation has been proposed in numerous jurisdictions that could lower minimum sentences for some non-violent crimes and make more inmates eligible for early release based on good behavior. Also, sentencing alternatives under consideration could put some offenders on probation with electronic monitoring who would otherwise be incarcerated. Similarly, reductions in crime rates or resources dedicated to prevent and enforce crime could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities.
In 2006, The Institute for Money in State Politics published a report titled Policy Lockdown: Prison Interests Court Political Players. The report speaks of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) as a “long-time proponent of privatization and stricter sentences…”–and says the organization “was instrumental in pushing get-tough-on-crime laws.” Model legislation that ALEC provided to legislators included three-strikes bills—as well as “truth-in-sentencing” bills that required convicted criminals to serve a set length of time before being eligible for parole. ITPI said that CCA helped “craft” that legislation “when it was a member of ALEC’s Criminal Justice Task Force.”
US Private prisons want you
We have been told that privatizing prisons is supposed to save counties and states money. It seems that’s a hard thing to do when elected officials sign contracts with private prison companies that require the counties and states to maintain extremely high inmate occupancy rates.
Who should be responsible for determining what our criminal justice policies should be? For-profit private prison companies. ALEC? What do you think?
CRIMINAL: How Lockup Quotas and “Low-Crime Taxes”Guarantee Profits for Private Prison Corporations (In the Public Interest)
Report says private prison contracts with states guarantee high inmate occupancy (Arizona Daily Star)
Prison Quotas Push Lawmakers To Fill Beds, Derail Reform (Huffington Post)
Policy Lockdown: Prison Interests Court Political Players (The Institute on Money in State Politics)
GAMING THE SYSTEM: How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies Promote Ineffective Incarceration Policies (Justice Policy Institute, 2001)
Private Prison Contracts Are Forcing States To Pay For Empty Beds (Business Insider)
Private Prisons Found to Offer Little in Savings (New York Times)
The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor: Years after ALEC’s Truth In Sentencing bills became the law of the land, its Prison Industries Act has quietly expanded prison labor across the country. (The Nation)
School-to-Prison Pipeline (ACLU)
Why is the Private Prison Industry in Our Schools? (Occupy.com)
Corrections Corporation of America Used in Drug Sweeps of Public School Students (The Center for Media and Democracy’s PRWatch)
Florida To Completely Privatize Juvenile Correctional Facilities (Huffington Post)