Private Prisons: The worst of the American Dream

Race remains a factor in prison count. Private prisons rely on political influence and cheap inmate labor to gain enormous profit. Photo: CCA / File

WASHINGTON, July 7, 2013 – The private prison system in America is an enormously profitable enterprise that capitalizes on political favor and influence, cheap inmate labor, little oversight and often-deplorable living conditions.

Private prison companies contract with local and state governments, the federal government and immigration agencies offering a second choice for the housing of convicted criminals and detained illegals. These companies get paid for each warm body they house.


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The more people in their system, and the longer they stay, the richer they become.

Modern day private prisons sprang up in the United States in the 1980’s quickly learning that lobbying politicians, and making huge campaign contributions, were the keys to staggering financial success.

These private prison companies promote policies that lead to higher rates of incarceration and, therefore, greater profits. They influence and even help draft legislation around the country, such as the “three-strikes” and “truth-in-sentencing” laws that send more people to jail.

The American Civil Liberties Union reported in 2011 that private prison companies owe their continued and prosperous existence to post 9/11 skyrocketing immigration detention as well as the firm hold they have gained over elected and appointed officials.


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The two largest private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, Inc. had revenues of $3 billion in 2010. During the last decade private prisons spent $45 million lobbying and making campaign contributions seeking to increase sentences and incarcerate more people. 

Last year CCA received $74 million to run immigration detention centers with their largest facility in Georgia receiving $200 a night for each of the 2,000 detainees it holds ($146 million), realizing annual profits between $35 and $50 million.

The ACLU report says since 2001, CCA revenues increased 88 percent, earning over $1 billion annually for each the last eight years. GEO Group revenues also increased, 121 percent, from $517 million in 2002 to $1.3 billion in 2010.

Despite the huge profits, the conditions are often deplorable.

Auditors visiting a private prison in Texas reported deplorable conditions, including that they “got so much fecal matter on their shoes they had to wipe their feet on the grass outside.” 

The prisoners were literally living in their own manure. The auditors also found:

“racial segregation; Hispanics not allowed to be cell mates with African-Americans; youth being disciplined for speaking Spanish; inmates being prevented from speaking to their lawyers; denial of access to medical treatment; and prisoners being forced to urinate or defecate in some container other than a toilet due to a lack of toilets in some of the cells.”

One company charges inmates $5.00 per minute to make phone calls but only pays them $1.00 a day to work. To communicate with their lawyers and loved ones, prisoners have to work five days to pay for just one minute.

The corporations also effectively turn prisoners into slave laborers, further boosting profits. 

According to Left Business Observer, private prisons use inmates for work,stealing jobs (PDF) from ordinary American workers in a wide array of industries. 

Federal prisons use laborers supplied by private companies and produce all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens; 93 percent of paints and paintbrushes; 92 percent of stove assemblies; 46 percent of body armor; 36 percent of home appliances; 30 percent of headphones, microphones and speakers; and 21 percent of office furniture.

Many huge corporations have dipped into this pool of cheap slave labor. 

IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T Wireless, Texas Instruments, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, and Target Stores head the list of America’s “employers” of prison laborers.

Private prisons in America began with the “Convict Lease System.” During the Reconstruction period (1865-1877), entrepreneurs from mostly Southern States contracted with the states and became jailers. They leased the prisoners out as laborers to railroad and mining companies and paid the state governments.   

The system was highly corrupt and plagued with problems.

Prisoners lived in unsanitary conditions, receiving insufficient food and water and often contracting diseases. They were overworked, prone to accidents, had little or no medical care and suffered frequent beatings by guards. Escape attempts were common. Many prisoners were killed trying to escape, a risk many considered acceptable because conditions would likely kill them before the end of their sentence.

Overcrowding is a problem in many state and federal prisons, and officials have looked to private prisons as one way to alleviate the problem.

However, unless authorities implement significant changes, including regular inspections and holding private institutions to humane standards, private prisons are not a solution. Corporations which benefit from longer prison stays must also be removed from discussions of sentencing and drafting legislation.

This is an industry that wants to put you in jail and keep you there as long as possible so it can make more money.

Is that the model we want for our penal system?

Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia since 1980. Paul is the featured legal analyst on the Washington Times Radio, in Washington, D.C., on the Andy Parks show, the featured legal analyst for America’s Radio News Network, heard in 165 markets nationwide, and he is a columnist at the Communities @ Washington Times.Com


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Paul Samakow

Attorney Paul Samakow brings his legal expertise to the headlines from life and real-life experience to The Washington Times Communties. A native Washingtonian, Samakow has been a Plaintiff’s trial lawyer since 1980, with offices in Maryland and Virginia. 

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