Big House, Big Profits 

Are privatized prisons influencing the political process?

Proponents call it the inevitable future of incarceration: Private prisons allow states to house their burgeoning inmate populations in facilities that are cheaper, safer, and more efficient reducing the need for large, taxpayer funded bureaucracies. But critics argue that for-profit prisons often prove more expensive in the long run, are less accountable to the public, compromise inmate rights and public safety, and essentially amount to “a commerce in souls.”

The national debate over privatized prisons has been raging for years, with Montana only recently entering the fray with the September 1999 opening of the Crossroads Correctional Center, a 500-bed private prison in Shelby. But a new report released last month by the Western Prison Project and the Western States Center argues that private correctional firms with a financial interest in increasing imprisonment rates are concentrating their political muscle on Western states like Montana and Idaho where they see a growing and profitable future.

The report, entitled “The Prison Payoff: the Role of Politics and Private Prisons in the Incarceration Boom,” suggests that private prison corporations are using hefty political contributions and “ideologically loaded model legislation” to increase inmate populations and thus drive up their own profits. As a result, the report argues, influencing elected officials has become “a key business strategy for private prison corporations.”

“We make no claims of a conspiracy,” the report says, noting that much of the tough-on-crime legislation adopted in the 1990s was bipartisan in nature. “Nonetheless, private prison companies have deeply insinuated themselves into the political process.”

That this country is engaged in the largest prison buildup in history is difficult to refute. Since 1980 the prison population in the United States has quadrupled, with one out of every 150 Americans now behind bars at an annual cost of $40 billion.

Between 1987 and 1996 the number of inmates housed in private prisons jumped 2,500 percent—from 3,122 to 78,000. Between 1990 and 1998 the number of private prison beds in the United States increased from 15,000 to more than 130,000.

Thus far 28 states have authorized private prisons, including Montana, which contracted with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to operate the state’s first private prison in Shelby. CCA is the nation’s largest private prison firm, operating more than 60 prisons and controlling 52 percent of the market share.

The WPP report points to one conservative policy group in particular—the Washington, D.C.-based American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—as the mastermind behind many state laws that have fueled higher incarceration rates, longer sentences and the dismantling of rehabilitative and transition services for prisoners. ALEC receives most of its funding from corporate sources, including major players in the private prison industry like CCA.

ALEC is credited for providing the model for Montana’s Truth in Sentencing Act, the habitual offender (or “three strikes”) law and House Bill 83, signed by Gov. Marc Racicot in April 1997, allowing Montana to contract for private prisons. According to the WPP report, the day after Racicot signed the contract with CCA, then-Montana Department of Corrections Director Rick Day reported that prison growth had slowed and incarceration projections for 2000 would be half of what was expected; State Sen. B.F. Christiaens declared that the Montana had overbuilt its prisons.

Sally Johnson, acting Corrections director, refutes most of the report’s conclusions. “It’s obvious that the people publishing it have a clear agenda. It’s not an objective analysis,” she says. “I don’t see CCA doing a whole bunch of lobbying here in Montana. The corporate folks have taken a much lower profile in our state and we work very hard with the local officials … to make sure that [the Shelby facility] is run in an orderly fashion.”

“One of our main arguments against private prisons is that they’re not subject to the same public oversight and public disclosure laws that public agencies are,” argues Brigette Sarabi of the Western Prison Project. “When it comes to something as sensitive as law enforcement and corrections, we think that’s simply not acceptable.”

Sarabi points to several recent studies that show that the rate of inmate-on-inmate assaults and inmate-on-guard assaults are higher in private prisons than in public ones. The reason, she says, may be because corrections officers in private prisons tend to receive less training, are understaffed and have higher turnover rates due to their lower (i.e. nonunion) pay scale.

Johnson dismisses those criticisms, saying that the state’s contract with CCA requires that CCA corrections officers be paid a comparable wage to the state’s corrections officers. Moreover, Corrections approves the staffing requirements at Shelby and can require CCA to increase its staff at any time. Since its opening, Shelby has had no escapes or major security incidents.

“If and when something goes wrong, the private sector have proven time and again that we can react more quickly to correct those problems,” says Steve Owen, director of communications for CCA. He says that CCA’s corrections officers are trained to meet or exceed standards set by the American Correctional Association and since mid-1999, the company’s inmate escape rate was only one-third the national average for state-run facilities.

But Sarabi and other privatization opponents see inherent conflicts of interest in co-mingling the role of incarceration and profit-making.

“Do I think the private prison companies are driving the increased prison population? No,” says Sarabi. “But do I think that they see an opportunity here to increase the market and their market niche? Absolutely.”

There are no plans or discussions to build more prisons in Montana—public or private—says Johnson, although the Shelby facility could be expanded to house as many as 1,500 inmates.

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