America incarcerates far more people than any other nation in the world. Though the U.S. accounts for just 5% of the world’s population, inmates in America account for 25% of the world's prison population. China’s population is over four times that of America’s, yet the U.S. imprisons half a million more people.
Why the enormous difference between us and other countries? Do we truly have that many more criminals that need locking up? Or is something else at work here?
The United States has not always locked up citizens at the rate we do now. In 1970, America had fewer than 200,000 inmates in its prison cells. By the year 2000, this number exploded to over 2 million.
97% of federal inmates are locked up for non-violent crimes. The overwhelming majority of these people are jailed for possession of illegal drugs. Not by coincidence, the War on Drugs began in the 1970’s . Among those who are locked up for violent crimes, legislative measures like “Truth in Sentencing” bills and “Three Strikes” laws give inmates little to no hope of earning parole. These legislative initiatives are collectively referred to as “tough on crime” laws.
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Where did these bills come from? They were passed by legislators in federal and state congresses, of course, but these legislators don’t typically write bills themselves. Lobbyist organizations draft model bills and pitch them to politicians. In the case of incarceration legislation, perhaps no lobbyist organization has been more influential than the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Two major forces behind ALEC are Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The GEO Group. CCA and GEO are private prison corporations – their business models shamelessly rely on incarcerating American citizens for profit. Through the ALEC, these corporations write legislature that insures incarceration rates – and therefore their profit margins -- stay astronomically high.
“ALEC has been a major force behind both privatizing state prison space and keeping prisons filled,” legal writer Alan Greenblatt wrote in 2003. “It put forward bills providing for mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes sentencing requirements. About 40 states passed versions of ALEC's Truth in Sentencing model bill, which requires prisoners convicted of violent crimes to serve most of their sentences without chance of parole.”
Ideally, the goal of incarceration is to drop crime rates, in turn lowering future incarceration rates. High incarceration rates are supposed to be viewed as a negative entity, and a healthy society strives to create an environment which minimizes the need for prisons. But when the prison industry is privatized, this dynamic gets turned on its head. With millions of dollars at stake, the private prison industry admits they depend on high incarceration rates to keep investors happy.
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In a 2010 report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, CCA stated “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by…leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices…”
Private prison corporations have shown to be relentless in their pursuit of inmates. Both CCA and GEO are engaged in state initiatives all across America hoping to both increase sentences for offenders and criminalize new behaviors.
In 2012, the CCA sent a letter to 48 states offering to buy public prisons in exchange for a promise to keep the prisons at 90% occupancy for the next 20 years. States that take up prison corporations on offers like this are forced to use tax dollars to reimburse the corporations if prison occupancy rates don’t remain high enough.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) ran a report in 2011 on the private prison industry titled “Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration.” Here’s how they sum up the problem of private prisons.
“…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,” the report says. “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”
Lucrative rewards is right. In 2010, the top two private prison companies topped over $3 billion in revenue. Their top executives both received compensation packages well over $3 million.
As long as prison is a for-profit business, Americans shouldn’t expect to see our incarceration rates drop. On the contrary, we should expect to see more of what we have for the last three decades – a severe decrease in violent crime accompanied by an enormous increase in incarceration rates. Any critical thinker can see that those two trends shouldn’t coincide, yet that is the exact situation we find ourselves in. With private prisons, incarceration is no longer about preventing crime. It’s about making money.
“The time to halt the expansion of for-profit incarceration is now,” the ACLU says. “The evidence that private prisons provide savings compared to publicly operated facilities is highly questionable, and certain studies point to worse conditions in for-profit facilities. The private prison industry helped to create the mass incarceration crisis and feeds off of this social ill. Private prisons cannot be part of the solution — economic or ethical — to the problem of mass incarceration.”