(JD Heyes) In July 2010, a trio of violent inmates managed to escape from a privately owned and operated prison in Arizona, which led to a massive, two-week, multi-state manhunt.
At the time, reports The Huffington Post, state corrections officials demanded that the facility, which is operated by Management & Training Corp., make improvements to security. They stopped sending inmates to what they described as a “dysfunctional” 3,300-bed facility.
Less than a year later, the company threatened to sue the state, alleging contract violations. Specifically, the company said the state guaranteed the prison would remain at least 97 percent full, and officials argued the company lost $10 million from the reduced inmate population.
Arizona officials ended up renegotiating the contract, but not before state taxpayers coughed up $3 million for the empty beds as the company continued to address problems, according to local reports at the time.
Arizona is hardly the only state that guarantees capacity for privately run prisons. In fact, HuffPo notes, guaranteed capacity is the rule, not the exception, in a majority of America’s private prisons, according to a September 2013 report by the advocacy group In the Public Interest.
Prison companies purchase bipartisan support
Huffington Post reported:
The group reviewed more than 60 contracts between private prison companies and state and local governments across the country, and found language mentioning quotas for prisoners in nearly two-thirds of those analyzed.
The prison bed guarantees range between minimums of 70 percent occupancy in a California prison to 100 percent occupancy requirements at some Arizona prisons. Most of the contracts had language mandating that at least 90 percent of prison beds be filled.
In an April 2015 report for The Washington Post, freelance journalist Michael Cohen noted that the for-profit prison industry has many high-profile backers, namely those elected to federal office. He says the two main private prison companies – GEO and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) – have spent tens of millions lobbying Congress for years.
Their efforts have paid off. Currently, there are around 130 private prisons in the U.S. housing some 157,000 inmates, Cohen reported.
He noted in his report that one of the biggest beneficiaries of for-profit prisons in terms of campaign contributions is Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a current GOP presidential contender. However, a quick Internet search revealed that prison companies also donate to Democrats and that Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton is also a beneficiary.
It is clear that the issue of political support for such institutions is bipartisan.
America is free – that’s why so many are in jail
HuffPo noted that experts believe mandatory minimum capacity requirements act as an incentive for policymakers to fill up empty prison beds they are paying for anyway as opposed to adopting longer-term policies and strategies such as sentencing reform that would significantly reduce prison populations.
This means that states are effectively incentivized to fill up prisons with new inmates regardless of the public safety needs of the people or overall crime rates.
“It’s really shortsighted public policy to do anything that ties the hands of the state,” Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer and criminal justice expert at the University of Texas School of Public Affairs who has researched the rise of private prisons, said in an interview with HuffPo.
“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,” she added.
The prison profiteers, however, have no issues justifying their industry.
“America is the freest country in the world,” said Henri Wedell, the largest investor in CCA and a member of the company’s board of directors.
“America allows more freedom than any other country in the world, much more than Russia and a whole lot more than Scandinavia, where they really aren’t free,” he continued. “So offering all this freedom to society, there’ll be a certain number of people, more in this country than elsewhere, who take advantage of that freedom, abuse it, and end up in prison. That happens because we are so free in this country.”