Willie Sutton was a 1950’s bank robber who famously declared it was worth risking prison (where he spent more than half of his life) to rob banks because “that’s where all the money is.”
Today, Sutton would be surprised to learn that private prisons are now “where all the money is”—provided you own a prison company and were smart enough to give Donald Trump a fat donation.
If making a fortune by owning a prison seems improbable to you, consider this: imagine every single resident of the City of Houston, America’s fourth largest city, was instantly transferred to a jail cell and we mean everyone: every man, woman, child, senior citizen, newborn—even the homeless. If you can picture that, you have a sense of the true size of our prison population of over 2.2 million.
Shockingly, America, the supposed land of the free, has 600,000 more prisoners than China, which is an actual police state. And while this is an oft-repeated statistic, you can’t repeat enough: our United States has only 4.4 percent of the world’s total population but we have 22 percent of the everyone who now lives behind bars, including a much-too-large number of poor non-criminals imprisoned illegally for failing to pay fines on time (more on that below.)
Numbers like that mean big bucks for the private prison industry and the numbers of people incarcerated—whether they are actually convicted or not—are about to get much bigger as the Trump administration is well on it’s way to actually fulfilling at least one of his campaign promises, using immigration policy to put up to 500,000 or more men, women and children in dentition, often without due process, to await judgement by our understaffed and overworked immigration courts. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has already announced nine figure government contracts to two private prison companies that were some of Crooked Donald’s earliest backers and now among his biggest donors to house the upcoming inmates, many of whom will likely be found to be “not guilty.”
Yet, it was only last fall when the share prices for the nation’s largest publicly-traded prison contractors now receiving Trump monies, GEO Group and CoreCivic, were in the dumpster. One reason prisons were seen as a poor investment is that since 2014 there was a dramatic, drop in crime leaving fewer prisoners to house—and both the federal government and several states were looking to drop their prison populations far more. But much worse were the many investigations, including one from the Obama administration’s Justice Department, that exposed a private prison system rife with corruption, abuse, unaccountability and none of the promised taxpayer savings.
But then Trump and Sessions happened and all the abuses were forgotten, so now private prisons prosper again: in a February earnings conference call, CoreCivic CEO Damon Hininger bragged how Trump and Session’s DoJ had signed off on nearly a billion in contracts to his company, with $511 million coming from ICE alone. Hininger was practically giddy describing to the financial press how Trump’s executive orders meant there would more migrants to detain in the Southwest and detention centers in the shadow of the promised border wall was a very good business model—aka, more prisoners, maximum profits. As a consequence, investment analysts rate the GEO Group and CoreCivic as hot stocks and both now have solid “BUY” recommendations from Wall Street.
As you might expect, both companies were big supporters of Trump, contributing nearly $550,000 to this inaugural and political committees. More importantly, Trump was a big booster of private prisons and, unlike most companies and executives who eventually gave Trump money, private prison companies were early backers of the Trump train. (Which begs the question of why there isn’t a full ban on political contributions by government contractors, but that’s another column.)
To be fair, Donald Trump didn’t create this mess, it actually began in the early 1980s under Ronald Reagan’s “zero tolerance” drug policies that, coupled with federal cutbacks and tight state budgets, created a new market for companies marketing private prisons. The last boom in the private prison biz occurred in the mid 2000’s, thanks to a perfect combination of post 9-11 security laws coupled with a new wave of drug enforcement (meth labs were a big factor) as well as a new breed of conservative governors who promised savings through privatization. With lobbying budgets and campaign donations totaling millions of dollars at the state and federal level, prison companies promised these officials more cells for fewer cents and big savings to the taxpayers.
But that said, Crooked Donald and AG Sessions are determined to make things worse by supporting their donors and ignoring the overwhelming evidence that private prisons are both unaccountable and actually costing taxpayers far more than traditional prisons.
A typical example of these abuses was a developer in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania who kicked back $2.1 million in payments to two state judges that forced the county to shut down their old facility to build a new private juvenile detention center and these judges conspired with the developer to keep the facility operating at capacity. The scheme was exposed when parents and the press wondered why this peaceful county had an incarceration rates three times higher than any other juvenile facility in Pennsylvania. Before the three conspirators were caught and convicted in 2011, hundreds of juveniles, some as young as ten, were imprisoned for offenses such as driving the family car without permission, conspiracy to shoplift for failing to inform on a friend, pocketing a $4 bottle of nutmeg from a grocery store and the case of a young woman who missed her first semester of college because she was in jail for a creating a satiric website (including fart jokes) mocking an assistant principal at her school.
But at least in the Pennsylvania case, no actually died: the same cannot be said of Florida’s corrupt system where for 20 years, the state subcontracted juvenile facilities to a private company, Youth Services International (YSL). Yet when it was proven the company’s policies were leading to exaggerated incarceration rates, injuries, rapes and dozens of dead kids, the State of Florida defended YSL for more than five years before terminating their contact—but due to budget cuts, they need to find a private contractor to replace YSL.
And the pattern is the same everywhere: a study in Mississippi proved how private guards were writing up prisoners for dozens of minor offenses, extending their terms, denying them parole they had earned to extend their sentences to boost profits and cost taxpayers thousands more.
In Arizona, private prisons are supposed to operate under accountability laws making private operators have prove they are saving taxpayers money. Yet, when the first government accounting proved how private prisons were cost $1,600 more per inmate per year, Republicans in the legislature worked to expand those prisons instead of demanding savings. Worse, that Arizona accounting didn’t even expose other factors increasing costs to taxpayers: private prison operators, in a preview of the Republican health care bill, increased their profits by writing a contract that allowed the private prisons to get the healthiest and easiest to rehabilitate prisoners, leaving the sickest and most troubled inmates to public prisons, which drove up operating costs to the taxpayer.
One reason it is hard to get the public interested in this is the public perception people in prison deserve to be there—yet there are an estimated quarter of a million people in local prisons who don’t deserve to be there. A 1983 Supreme Court case was supposed to end the practice of jailing poor people for not paying parking or traffic tickets in a timely manner. This is a legal principal that had the full support of both Justices Ginsberg and Scalia. Sadly, because so many local courts gave private collection agencies the authority to arrest people, so were able ignore the ruling for decades. Last year, the DoJ sent a notice to local courts that “Poverty is Not a Crime” and prior to the election, federal officials were aggressively targeting states like Alabama and Texas that who giving prison sentences for unpaid tickets to simply to doing that—much too late to save Sandra Bland.
But all this reform will all disappear during the age of Trump: The Obama administration had announced it would put an end to the fewer than 22,000 federal inmates now in private prisons. Instead, Crooked Donald and his backers hope to increase the number of federally incarcerated individuals to more than 20 times those in jail under Obama.
During the during one of the presidential debates, Trump insisted private prisons had no problems and did better than public prisons without offering any proof and despite the hundreds of reports that prove otherwise. Since then, the Trump administration has refused to explain why, despite their austerity budget, private prisons will now receive billions.
And as Trump’s federal policy goes, so go the states—despite all the problems, states are now looking to once again expand private facilities. With government oversight failing at all levels in the legislature, perhaps it is time for citizens to take to the courts and demand accountability. I’m not just talking about defense attorneys, prisoners and their families suing to hold private prisons accountable. That’s going to happen anyways. I’m talking about taxpayers filing class action suits under state laws to demand private prisons prove