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.