Category: Economics (page 2 of 2)

The link between new immigration laws and growth of private prisons

This article describes the major role played by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the country’s largest private prison company, in proposing and drafting what became the notorious Arizona Senate Bill 1070. The language and the title of the bill drafted at a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) meeting last December were virtually entirely preserved in SB 1070. CCA, along with other major prison companies and lobbyists, including the Geo Group and Management and Training Corporation, have major representation in ALEC, and 30 of the 36 co-sponsors of the bill received donations from these companies and lobbyists after the December meeting.

This article discusses the economics of the private prison industry, and how it generally exhibits the logic that the incentive to build more prisons leads to legislation and policies that produce more arrests, sentencing and detention, or prisoners– not the other way around. At a time when the practical extension of this logic seems to be exhausting itself even in the eyes of its proponents, immigration detention presents a promising new market and growth opportunity.

As the ACLU recently reported, “private prisons for adults were virtually non-existent until the early 1980s, but the number of prisoners in private prisons increased by approximately 1600% between 1990 and 2009. Today, for-profit companies are responsible for approximately 6% of state prisoners, 16% of federal prisoners, and, according to one report, nearly half of all immigrants detained by the federal government. In 2010, the two largest private prison companies alone received nearly $3 billion dollars in revenue, and their top executives, according to one source, each received annual compensation packages worth well over $3 million.” This analysis further questions the conventional assumption that local economies stand to gain from the growth of private prisons, since new prisons may drain local resources without offsetting these costs, obstruct possibilities for other types of local job creation, and because profit-incentives lead to more violent prison conditions, among other things.

Starving prisoners to cut costs

In news related to this post from last month, the New York Times now reports that prisons in states around the country are cutting costs in this strapped economy by depriving prisoners of basic meals. Prisons have exploited the gray areas in the law about requirements for feeding prisoners three times a day, applying it only according to the letter of the law (in Texas, to county inmates, not to state prisoners) and cutting meals in cases of legal ambiguity. These meal reductions have class implications (prisoners whose families cannot send them money to supplement their meals with snacks from the commissary must just go hungry). They also show the lack of bounds to the truth of this statement from the executive director of the Texas Inmate Families Association: “it’s really easy to take things away from inmates.”

This statement from Senator John Whitmire, Democrat and chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, is one indication of how inured to human rights issues in prisons policy and lawmakers have become: “If they don’t like the menu,” he said, “don’t come there in the first place.”

The problem of recognizing the problem of recidivism

Despite indications that federally funded reentry programs have effectively reduced recidivism during the last few years, the Senate has earmarked no funds for the Second Chance Act program that oversees them. In contrast, it has set aside nearly $300 million for new aid to federal prisons. As the Times comments, “[t]he Senate has its priorities backward.”

Novel strategies for profiting from prisoners

In case you all missed this news, earlier this month Arizona passed legislation imposing fees on visitors to prisoners, creating yet another obstacle to prisoners’ ability to communicate and maintain relationships with friends and loved ones outside prison walls.

At a time when states’ budgets are strapped, legislatures are charting new ground in their efforts to make prisons more profitable at the expense of the few basic rights prisoners still retain. Texas, for example, earlier this year tentatively approved a bill that would require inmates to pay $100 a year for healthcare (read more here).

Ashley Lucas commented on these events together in the context of prison economies in her insightful post on Razorwire women, in which she also points out that in Texas, prisoners are not paid any wages for their labor. The Texas legislation thus strikes a note as absurd and offensive as the California policy that Lucas describes, requiring prisoners to pay restitution fees for own their criminal convictions.

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