The US prison system, now home to over 2 million Americans, runs like an economy unto itself: From the cafeteria line to the phone line to the assembly line, a steady stream of money is fueling our incarceration complex. But who profits off prisoners remains a trade secret.
That’s why advocates for criminal-justice reform are now harnessing big data to map out the carceral state, exposing the corporate networks that administer and finance the prison industry while driving its expansion. The Corrections Accountability Project of the Urban Justice Center (where, full disclosure, this author once interned) presents a kind of yellow pages of criminal justice, revealing the convoluted, self-serving mechanics of industrialized incarceration.
The prison economy rests on an opaque, often unaccountable economic infrastructure, with its own private-equity financiers, holding companies, and multinational executives. Since the financial transactions driving incarceration are typically private and unregulated, according to CAP director Bianca Tylek, their analysis aims “to help people understand just how big this space is,” particularly because, often, “companies spend their money in a way to further entrench or expand the use of our criminal-legal system, and who it ends up touching.”
With millions of lives touched by criminal-justice institutions every day—the families and communities of the incarcerated, a sprawling public force, scores of private government contractors—prisons are an increasingly lucrative investment opportunity.
Today, major private corporations administer services ranging from medical-record keeping to surveillance to psychiatric counseling. GEO and CoreCivic provide full-scale management and security services at private state facilities as well as immigration-detention centers. They have lately branched into “Community Corrections,” which provides social programming following release, such as court-ordered treatment and halfway houses. Sequel Youth & Family Services provides extensive private juvenile-detention and counseling programs.
Israeli-based Attenti, formerly known as 3M, now operates under private-equity firm Apax Partners, yielding tens of millions from electronic monitoring services. Vocational programs for training inmates in blue-collar trades provide a combination of rehabilitation and behavioral management.
But beyond direct in-house services, the CAP report points to various complex financing entities that fuel a built-in incentive to consolidate, monopolize, and expand the incarceration system and the sentencing and legal processes that keep it humming.
Like any industry-growth model, prisons have fundamental internal incentives to achieve economies of scale by expanding their operations and accruing more state funds. Yet CAP focuses its critique (as does the American Friends Service Committee) on the absence of democratic control and oversight over the commercial operations of mass incarceration, which is often detached from any reasonable public-justice priority and represents a wider pattern of corporate impunity across the criminal-justice system.
Even if prisons are run technically in accordance with official regulations, rights groups are wary of intrinsic profit incentives that border on corporate criminality. For example, Tylek explains, prison-industry lobbyists have been known to actively promote the campaigns of anti-immigration hard-liners, as well as harsh anti-marijuana policies—which in turn fuel fresh “demand” for new prison beds and facilities.
“What we even consider a crime,” Tylek says, “is highly shaped by corporate influence…. And the question there becomes, is that how we want crime to be defined, [who decides it] and then who’s targeted by that.” Harsh policing and sentencing standards for drug-related violations, nonviolent property crimes, and other offenses associated with the young and poor have driven mass incarceration since the 1980s. All the while, Wall Street’s white-collar criminals are hardly ever prosecuted—the same kinds of investors who plow money into the prison business, and the same powerful social elite who help drive political discourse that systematically vilifies poor communities, immigrants, and people of color.
Tylek says that the combination of privatization and consolidation over the last three decades, reinforced by the industry’s well-funded political champions in Congress and state legislatures, are the product of a private-equity financial network that is “obscured from the public. So they’ve been able to buy up companies…growing their market share consistently larger.” Every time money is wired from an immigration jail through Western Union or blood is drawn by a health-care provider controlled by a private-equity group, it takes a bit off the top. “Their entire business model, is actually dependent on poverty.”
The new generation of prison-data mapping elucidates both the commercialization of imprisonment and the social cost of punishment. It doesn’t aim to expose any particular smoking gun but rather, to expose how much is at stake in each prison cell, which ultimately represents an individual’s life. Naming, mapping, and measuring the system drives forward the public conversation about what society’s priorities should be as more communities seek to reform toward a more open, democratic, and humane society. To decarcerate society, we must recognize that we’re not just politically implicated in its abuses but economically invested as well.