Back in the lock-em-up frenzy of the 1990s, overcrowded state prison systems relied heavily on the emerging private prison industry to handle their excess inmates. Now that state prison populations are falling, you might expect the private sector to be taking a few hits, too -- but guess again. For investors in human misery, times are good.
That's one of the punishing truths found in a searing, just-released report by the Justice Policy Institute, Gaming the System: How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies Promote Ineffective Incarceration Policies . The report charts the growing success enjoyed by the two largest purveyors of private hoosegows -- Corrections Corporation of American and the GEO Group, which boasted combined revenues of $2.9 billion last year -- and examines their strategies for meeting the challenge of declining crime rates and dwindling state corrections budgets.
Running a private lockup is, it seems, a lot like running a cheap motel. Except that you don't want your customers checking out, ever. "We believe we have been successful in increasing the number of residents in our care and continue to pursue a number of initiatives intended to further increase our occupancy and revenue," CCA's 2010 annual report declares.
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What initiatives? According to JPI, the companies have prospered by wooing federal contracts, spending millions on campaign contributions to build special relationships with leading Democrats and Republicans alike, and lobbying aggressively for harsher sentencing schemes and against low-cost alternatives to incarceration.
California, Texas and Florida have been key targets of the industry's influence-buying sprees, of course, because of their large prison populations. But they've also been busy in places like Arizona and New Mexico -- less so in Colorado, which has a somewhat troubled history with CCA (thanks to the Crowley riot and other problems) and is currently wrestling with some controversial prison-closing decisions.
Gaming the System contends that private prisons don't save money in the long run and suggests more research is needed on the subject. But the basic economic data is conclusive on one point: While states are figuring out that they need to trim their inmate numbers to keep healthy, the privateers are eager to keep those occupany rates up, up, up.
More from our News archive: "Harley Lappin: Private prison industry woos another top public official."