Alex Friedmann, 50, was transferred to a Tennessee public prison in 1998 after having spent the previous six years incarcerated in a private facility. Everything was different: there were more blankets, the toilet paper wasn’t as cheap, and correctional officers were everywhere.
“First thing I noticed was there’s a heck of a lot more staff or boots on the ground in the public prisons,” he told Vox. “There was not such an emphasis on cutting costs.”
After being released in 1999, Friedmann — now the associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center — began fighting for the abolishment of private prisons, and has spent the past two decades doing so. The arguments against them are clear, he said: their for-profit model encourages the business to cut corners, affecting inmates’ safety and quality of living.
Increasingly, these criticisms of private, for-profit facilities have been reflected in policy and spending. Fueled in part by opposition from their constituents, lawmakers of states like California and Nevada have banned private prisons from operating. Businesses are also increasingly cutting ties with the industry following pushback from their customers.
And the number of inmates in these facilities are also seeing a downward trend: in comparison to its peak in 2012 of about 136,220 people, the private prison population has dropped about 12 percent in the past five years as more facilities are closing. Given private prisons rely on facilities being full to remain economically viable, there is concern among executives these falling numbers could eventually drive these businesses to their demise.
Some in the industry have begun to accept private prisons may not exist in the decades to come. CoreCivic, the nation’s largest and oldest private prison firm, said it has begun to plan for a federal private prison ban if a Democratic candidate wins the 2020 presidential election (current frontrunners like former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren support its abolishment), according to Nashville Post. Rather than house inmates for the government, the company would simply lease real estate, CEO Damon Hininger said on a conference call last month.
In an attempt to avoid having to rely on these contingency plans, the for-profit prison industry has established an advocacy group called Day 1 Alliance (D1A). The group launched on October 25, and is backed by the largest companies in the industry: CoreCivic will provide initial funding while GEO Group and Management & Training Corporation — the second and third largest companies in the marketplace — will take on leadership roles, according to the Associated Press.
As a public information group, D1A will focus on changing public opinion that has soured on the industry. The group doesn’t plan on lobbying or advocating for issues, the group’s spokeswoman Alexandra Wilkes told Vox; instead it will focus on spreading its message by engaging with the media.
“We launched D1A because of the huge gap that has opened up between the false, distorted rhetoric that activists and some politicians use against this industry and the facts on the ground,” Wilkes said.
But activists argue that the advocacy group does not have the best interests of incarcerated people in mind, and are concerned it will try to downplay the poor living conditions in some facilities while reversing the victories activists have won in states like California and Nevada.
“Don’t be fooled: This is an effort to defend a multi-billion dollar industry that regularly gouges American taxpayers and take attention away form the conditions in these jails,” Families Belong Together Chairwoman Jess Morales Rocketto wrote in a statement, “The private prison industry has a long and documented history of abusing people in their care.”
Whether D1A is able to successfully rebut this sentiment remains to be seen; it is clear doing so will be difficult given state and federal politicians, activists, other corporations, and members of the public are pushing for the complete closure of private prisons. With over 100,000 inmates currently incarcerated in private prisons, the industry is not yet at its deathbed. But there are signs the successful legislation in California and Nevada has inspired lawmakers elsewhere: Minnesota and Colorado are both working on bills that would abolish for-profit prisons.
A brief history of private prisons
Private prisons first emerged in the 1980s in response to mass incarceration created by tough-on-crime policies. As state and federal prisons became overcrowded, private businesses seized the opportunity to build their own facilities and house the incarcerated. The world’s first modern for-profit prison company, Corrections Corporation of America (now known as CoreCivic), was established in 1983 by Thomas Beasley, Doctor R. Crants, and T. Don Hutto.
CoreCivic — and other for-profit prisons that followed — makes money from government contracts that set a cost per inmate that taxpayers will pay the company. In return, the facilities agree to provide incarcerated people a mandatory ration of food, clothing, healthcare, and other living needs.
It’s an attractive partnership for states because it gives them the opportunity to shift accountability away from themselves, said Louisiana State University political science professor Anna Gunderson, who is writing about the US’s adoption of these facilities.
“What’s driving a lot of the [private prison system] is not so much the need — although that’s certainly part of it — but also the desire to sort of make sure that if something bad happens within private facilities, the company is blamed and not necessarily the state government,” she said.
That’s exactly why they’re a problem, because these businesses — which like any other, are looking to make a profit — work to increase profit margins by cutting corners, activists argue. Friedmann said he found this particularly true in the quality of staff. Not only were there fewer correctional officers, but they were also trained less than officers at public prisons, he said. Low pay rates led to frequent turnover, and a lack of experienced officers directly impact the inmates’ quality of life, he said.
“I do recall one incident where a prisoner set fire within his cell, smoke was billowing out of his cell, he was locked inside,” Friedmann said. “The guard, instead of letting the guy out or calling from help, just held the door shut so he couldn’t get out. And that might have been because she was the only staff member in the unit. And she was afraid if she’d let the guy out, he might overpower her or something. Basically just left him in there to burn.”
Under the Obama administration, narratives such as these became cause for alarm, and an 2016 memo ordered the Justice Department to reduce the use of private prisons after a DOJ report revealed they had higher rates of contraband, violence, and use of force than public prisons. This directive, coupled with declining incarceration numbers, led many who are opposed to private prisons to believe economic realities would lead to the facilities going out of business.
But that optimism faded in 2017, when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded that memo “to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.” And the Trump administration went on to embrace the use of private detention facilities in order to realize its family separation policy. Homestead center, a private shelter near Miami operated by the for-profit company Caliburn, was criticized in June for detaining migrant children for long periods in poor conditions. It attracted a flock of presidential candidates, who denounced the facility while standing on its grounds, and the facility will effectively shut down on November 30.
“For a lot of people it is a lot easier to be upset about private prisons when the people that are incarcerated within them are children or families,” Gunderson said. “I think that caught a lot of people’s attention and it made them realize, ‘If the federal government is privatizing immigration what is my state doing?’”
Despite public outcry over private detention facilities — in particular the shelters — the Trump administration shows no sign of reversing its policies. In response to the federal government’s embrace of for-profit incarceration, states and businesses have begun to take their own action against the industry.
States and industries have both taken action against private prisons
In total, 22 states — under both Democratic and Republican control — don’t house incarcerated people in for-profit prisons, and in recent months, three states have passed legislation around these facilities. Nevada banned private prisons in May, and the following month, Illinois, which banned for-profit correctional centers in the 1990s, expanded that law to include privately-run immigration detention centers.
California passed a bill in October that effectively bans for-profit prisons. The state will close three private prisons that house 1,400 inmates in the next four years, while four private detention facilities that hold about 4,000 people will also stop operating in the next year, according to Reuters.
“By ending the use of for-profit, private prisons and detention facilities, we are sending a powerful message that we vehemently oppose the practice of profiteering off the backs of Californians in custody, that we will stand up for the health, safety and welfare of our people, and that we are committed to humane treatment for all,” Assemblymember Rob Bonta, chief-author of the bill, said in a statement following the passage of the bill.
But significant loopholes still exist in California’s law that are of concern to those who advocate for the total abolition of private prisons: facilities that provide “educational, vocational, medical or other ancillary services” will be exempted, according to Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives for the Sentencing Project.
“I don’t necessarily think that the passage of that legislation will mean the end of the end of private prisons in that state,” she said. “It just seems that there’s a lot of loopholes which means that the private prison industry is going to continue. So I don’t look necessarily at California as a model.”
For Gotsch, states like Nevada — which effectively abolished private prisons with few exemptions in May — should serve as an ideal example of how states should scrap the facilities because that state’s ban is absolute: Nevada cannot have contracts with any private facilities that provide services like housing and custody after July 1, 2022, with no exemptions.
And more states are planning to take similar measures to ride this wave of banning private prisons. Last month, Colorado’s Democratic lawmakers proposed a bill that would close most of the state’s for-profit facilities — which hold about 19 percent of Colorado’s incarcerated population — by 2025. Two Minnesota state representatives also plan to introduce a bill during the 2020 session that would ban for-profit immigration detention centers.
And it’s not only states that are taking notice of the public’s scrutiny of these businesses. Banks are also cutting ties with these companies: All of GEO Group’s known bank partners — JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, BNP Paribas, SunTrust, and Barclays — announced they would no longer provide lines of credit to the company by September, according to Morgan Simon’s reporting in Forbes.
As I explained when Bank of America cut its ties with the detention industry, these financial partnerships are important to the daily operation of the facilities:
Most of these facilities rely on debt financing from these banks to pay for their day-to-day operational fees. The operators pay off the banks when they secure government contracts, which then gives them the ability to continue taking out loans. Other sources of financing exist, but without a steady stream of loans to keep the cycle going, private prison operators wouldn’t be able to keep their facilities open.
While the capital these banks provide is just a portion of these companies’ financial portfolios — which include share ownership, bonds, and private equity investors — GEO Group said losing the backing of its banking partners “could have a material adverse effect on our business, financial condition, and results of operations” if other investors decide to ditch the industry as well.
While the continued existence of private prisons is increasingly being called into question, the reality is that closing private prisons will change little about the criminal justice system as a whole. Only 121,718 inmates, or about 8.2 percent of the US prison population, are incarcerated in private prisons, according to the Sentencing Project. More than a million Americans would remain imprisoned even if those held at private prisons were released, and many state and federal facilities suffer from the same poor conditions for-profit prisons are said to have.
Ultimately, Friedmann said the root of the private prison problem — and the root of many other criminal justice issues — is mass incarceration: “If you didn’t have so many people locked up, we wouldn’t need the extra beds the private prisons provide,” he said. His solution: rolling back tough-on-crime legislation and removing profit incentives from the justice system. Doing both things, he said, would not only hasten the demise of private prisons, but would also begin to address larger issues with incarceration in the US.