Incarceration, Inc. | The Nation


Incarceration, Inc.

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As sordid as it is, it's no great surprise that the private prison industry would want a piece of the Iraq pie. Under the current Administration the industry has aggressively expanded its reach at both the state and federal levels, cashing in on the post-9/11 opportunity to provide more beds for immigration detainees.

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Sasha Abramsky
Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s...

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Florida Police Benevolent Association legislative assistant Ken Kopczynski, who has spent years tracking the expansion of the private prison sector (the state PBA opposes these institutions because they encroach on union territory, but also on public safety grounds), has identified close to 300 state and federal prisons, jails, juvenile detention facilities and holding centers for illegal immigrants operated by the private sector nationwide, housing some 132,000. Many of these have opened in the post-9/11 era, and more are planned, with proponents telling local communities that building detention facilities is practically a patriotic duty.

In Arizona, activists managed to put the kibosh on a plan to create a 3,200-bed private prison for women, which would have been the largest women's prison in the world. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, opponents prevented the siting of a private immigration holding facility. Proposals for a vast, privately operated federal facility in Maryland were defeated after both of the state's US senators attached their names to the "no" campaign. Yet while opponents have managed to apply the brakes successfully against a handful of proposed facilities, today private prison companies are central participants in the incarceration business nationally. "They say, 'Here's economic development. This business wants to come in and give you jobs,'" says Edwin Bender of the Institute on Money and State Politics. "They don't tell the communities the companies make a profit on the margins, and that profit relies on low wages and poor job training."

Throughout the border states of the Southwest, across the Southeast and in the Midwest, ribbons of privately operated federal facilities are springing up. Texas has the most private prisons and holding facilities. Kopczynski estimates that seventy-three of the country's close to 300 private detention centers are in the Lone Star State, and recently the border town of Laredo gave the go-ahead for a mammoth, 2,800-bed warehouse for those slated to be deported. Fifty more facilities are divvied up among Arizona, California and New Mexico.

Twenty years ago, in the early days of America's prison boom, a handful of private companies, most of them with broad expertise in the security industry, saw an opportunity. Their founders, the healer-quacks of a crime-fearing age, hoped to cash in on incarceration, and for several years their business models appeared unstoppable. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), Wackenhut, CSC and others made enough headway to take their enterprises public. By the early 1990s, as states scrambled to find beds to house War on Drugs prisoners, three-strikers and others on the wrong end of the tough-on-crime stick, private prisons had come to be seen almost as angels of salvation. The companies built prisons quickly, sometimes not even billing the states for the building costs; they claimed to be able to operate on a lower cost per inmate, per day than could the state prisons; they often incorporated newer technologies and architectural innovations; and they stirred up competition in a field long the purview of largely unaccountable state bureaucrats.

One after another, state legislatures, many of them passing bills drafted by the industry-friendly, ultra-conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, opened up their corrections systems to private companies and lavished tax breaks on them.

By the mid-1990s, more than 4 percent of all prisoners were being held in private facilities, and many analysts were predicting that the infant industry would grow exponentially over the coming years. Some hoped to take over the running of entire state prison systems--indeed, as far back as the 1980s, CCA had approached Tennessee with a proposition to run its system; others put their faith in a more stealthy, incremental approach. In New Mexico, a state that ultimately went further than any other in its zest for privatization, by 2000 fully 40 percent of state inmates were living in private prisons. "People want to see wrongdoers go to prison, but at the same time they don't want to pay for it," explains Geoffrey Segal, director of privatization and government reform policy at the pro-privatization Reason Public Policy Institute.

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