Private Prisons & Personal Profit: Capitalizing on Human Suffering
Prisons are torture. The idea of squeezing a few bucks out of already-laughable budgets is difficult for those who have been inside to fathom, for we know where that money is coming from. During Obama's Presidency, private prisons were slated to be phased out. But when Trump was elected in 2016, their stocks shot through the roof. The main player (CoreCivic) saw its stock go up 140% in the months following trumps inauguration; they made $220 million in profit in 2016, an average of $2,444 per inmate.
Between 1980 and 2000, the US prison population expanded by more than 500%, while the number of people locked up for drug convictions between 1980 and 2010 increased by 1100%.* In the wake of an ongoing prison boom that outran state and federal ability to keep pace, officials were faced with a dilemma: they were running out of cells in which to house the mass of “criminals” created by the war on drugs. Although various experiments at private correctional institutions had taken place prior to the 1980s, the contemporary private prison materialized during this rapid expansion in convicted "criminals," fueled, in large part, by the war on drugs.**
Faced with the prospect of having to build new and larger prisons, and amidst an uptick in abuse of power cases leading to expensive lawsuits, the state opted to allow private organizations to take a swing at criminal corrections. In exchange for a contracted sum of money, a private organization would take over housing, feeding, caring for, and profiting off inmates. Liability would also be minimized, at least in theory, because private corporations would be in charge of training and oversight; the state would be off the hook in cases of abuse. If these private corporations could manage to squeeze out a few dollars in profit and still maintain acceptable standards of inmate housing, more power to them; this, according to investors, is how capitalism should work. Proponents seem to conveniently forget that people of color currently account for more than 60% of all American prisoners.
CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), is currently the largest owner and operator of private prisons on Earth. In December of 2014, CoreCivic (then CCA) operated 64 facilities with more than 82,000 beds. Just three years later, as of November of 2017, CoreCivic operated 91 prisons with a total of nearly 90,000 beds. The private prison powerhouse recently made Fortune 500’s Top 1000 Businesses list, with an estimated market value of $3.8 billion. They made $220 million in profit during 2016 alone—more than 30% of the entire private prison sector profit.
Capitalism invaded the penitentiary. As company founder Tom Beasley used to say in his sales pitches, “you just sell it [a private prison] like you were selling cars or real estate or hamburgers." Law and order have become big business in the twenty-first century. With 2016 seeing $629 million in private-prison profits, the trend will likely continue.
What’s in a Name? In October of 2016, just weeks before the US Presidential election, CCA announced that it would be changing its corporate name to CoreCivic. As described by company President Damon Hininger, the decision was “the culmination of a multi-year strategy to transform our business from largely corrections and detention services to a wider range of government solutions."
For a company raking in hundreds-of-millions of dollars in profit each year, the recent name change may seem contrary to brand recognition. To those who have critiqued the capitalistic habit of profiting off crime and punishment, the name change is unsurprising. When called out for bad behavior, profiteers have a habit of rebranding themselves in an effort to make critiques such as this appear anachronistic: who are you talking about? That company doesn’t exist.
On August 18, 2016, US Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates delivered a long awaited (and overdue) message: the Justice Department was planning to end its use of private prisons after official reports concluded that such facilities are less safe and less effective at providing correctional services to inmates than those previously run by state entities. As might be expected, a storm of media attention descended on the private prison industry, and CoreCivic (still CCA then) found itself targeted by critics who were ready to pounce. For many of us, the anger was personal. Our fathers and brothers (and our own bodies) had suffered at the hands of a prison-industrial complex that favors trauma and forced labor over legitimate rehabilitation.
In a choreographed legal maneuver, CCA became CoreCivic at the opportune time, leaving critics pointing at a ghost that seemingly no longer existed. Just weeks after Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential election, newly-appointed attorney general (and living Confederate Monument) Jefferson Sessions rescinded the Justice Department’s Obama-era mandate to phase out the use of private prisons. CoreCivic got a dual shot-in-the-arm: the company was rebranded and reinvigorated overnight, and its stock skyrocketed when America’s “law and order” candidate doubled-down on private prisons.
In 2018, Alabama Sheriff Todd Entrekin was reported to have taken $750,000 from a fund earmarked to feed inmates. He bought a Beach House with it. When the reporters came nosing around, Entrekin bragged: "The law says its a personal account, and that's the way I've always done it." Once the process of profiting from imprisonment is normalized, everyone wants in.
*Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 60. See also Marc Mauer, Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling
(New York, NY: The New Press, 2006), 33. **Malcolm M. Feeley, “Entrepreneurs of Punishment: The Legacy of Privatization,” Punishment &
Society 4, no. 4 (July 2002): 321-344.