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Private prisons' blueprint for success: more lobbying, less security

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The use of private prisons by states and the federal government continues to increase, yielding billions in annual revenues for two dominant companies in the industry -- despite a lack of solid research that America's experiment with for-profit incarceration actually saves taxpayers money in the long run.

A new report by The Sentencing Project, "Too Good to Be True: Private Prisons in America," delves into the history and growth of private prison operators and reaches some fairly bleak conclusions.

The industry is thriving: While the overall prison population grew by 17 percent in the last decade, the number of inmates shipped to private operations went up by 80 percent. Roughly one out of twelve state and federal prisoners is currently in a for-profit hoosegow, one probably operated by either Corrections Corporation of America or the GEO Group; the two companies control more than half the contracts.

Colorado has stashed about a fifth if its inmates in private prisons, such as CCA's Bent County Correctional Facility (scene of this "natural" death) and Crowley County Correctional Facility (target of a long-running lawsuit over a 2004 riot). But the state has become less reliant on the private companies to handle its overload in recent years as its overall inmate population has declined. The greatest growth area has been in contracts with the federal government, which has seen a whopping 784 percent surge in its use of the privateers since 1999, thanks largely to "War on Drugs" sentencing provisions and other legislation that has packed the U.S. Bureau of Prisons' existing facilities.

The private companies can supposedly save money for their clients by being more efficient -- and paying staff less (from $5,300 to $15,000 less per year than a comparable state corrections officer), offering less training and programs for prisoners, and so on. But Cody Mason, author of The Sentencing Project's report, found that there's little independent data to support the assertion of substantial savings, and much that suggests the private operations end up being less safe and costing as much or more to run than comparable state facilities.

"Even if private prisons can manage to hold down costs, this success often comes at the detriment of services provided," Mason writes. "Private prisons must make cuts in important high-cost areas such as staff, training and programming to create savings."

Mason also points out that the major operators also spend millions each year lobbying lawmakers for contracts and legislation that will help to keep their prisons full; their "dependence on ensuring a large prison population to maintain profits provides inappropriate incentives to lobby government officials for policies that will place more people in prison," he notes. "This effort to increase reliance on incarceration comes at a time when America's rate of imprisonment is the highest in the world and when the prison population is far beyond the point of diminishing returns in terms of public safety."

Private prisons are a bad investment? That might depend not just on which side of the electrified fence you're on, the study suggests, but whether you're a CCA stockholder or just another well-yoked taxpayer.

More from our Prison Life archive: "Terrell Griswold: Mother questions inmate's 'natural' death in private prison."

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