Private, For-Profit Prison Corporations are Shaping Our Country’s Criminal Laws

There is an industry that spends millions of dollars persuading Americans to lock more of their neighbors, friends, and relatives in cages. These big spenders not only want more Americans in prison, they want them locked up for longer stretches.

Are they good citizens trying to protect us from criminals?

No. They’re just making a lot of money at the expense of our children’s futures, our communities, our families, and our criminal justice system.

The private, for-profit prison industry has quickly become one of the most powerful and effective lobbying forces in the US. They spend millions supporting “tough-on-crime” candidates and federal and state legislation that will result in more people being arrested, convicted, and housed for long periods in their private facilities.

Private Prisons Are Big Business in the United States

Since 2000, the number of people incarcerated in private prisons has increased by almost 50 percent. In 2015, 126,272 people – almost 10 percent of all inmates – were being held in private prisons.

Private prisons are big business in some states, and they don’t exist at all in others. For example, Texas and Florida house 14,293 and 12,487 inmates, respectively, in private prisons. Illinois, Kentucky and almost 20 other states have no private prisons.

South Carolina, so far, has barely explored the private prison option – only 14 inmates were housed in a private prison in 2015. But the private prison lobby is constantly pressuring states to save a little money by contracting with them to house inmates.

What’s the Problem with Private Prisons?

For-profit prison companies lobby for what is in the best interest of their bottom line – and that necessarily means they lobby for what is not good for Americans.

For example, private prison companies supported a “three-strikes” law that sends more people to prison in California, where more than 2,000 inmates are housed in private facilities.

They also donated to political candidates who supported a tough anti-immigration law in Arizona, where more than 6,000 inmates are held in for-profit prisons.

Starting in the middle of the 20th century, American attitudes about the role of prison started to shift away from pure punishment toward a mission of rehabilitation. But the interests of private prisons are antithetical to rehabilitation – they don’t want convicts to get out of prison, become productive citizens, and never come back.

If that sounds a bit dramatic, consider this excerpt from a report to the shareholders of private-prison company Corrections Corporation of America:

“The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws … Legislation has been proposed in numerous jurisdictions that could lower minimum sentences for some non-violent crimes and make more inmates eligible for early release based on good behavior.”

Think about what this means. These companies:

  • Don’t want voters to change drug laws, because it will hurt their profits.
  • They don’t want states to release inmates for good behavior, because it will hurt their profits.
  • They don’t want any progress in criminal justice, because their business model depends on draconian laws and maintaining the status quo.

Can we change this? I don’t know. The legislators that the prison lobby donates to are the ones that make the laws…

Although this issue has been around for some time, I suspect not everyone is aware. For starters, let’s make sure that people know what is going on – what private, for-profit prisons are and what laws they are lobbying to support.

Criminal Defense Firm in Charleston, SC

Grant B. Smaldone is a criminal defense lawyer based in Charleston, SC – if you have been arrested in the Charleston or Eastern SC area, call now at (843) 808-2100 or message us through our website to discuss your case.


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