Co-authored by Sarah Solon, communications strategist at the ACLU.
“CCA” has become a dirty word.
Kanye West cited it when rapping about America’s class of “New Slaves.” Anonymous invoked it to describe a bad financial investment that undermines justice. And for state after state, the word represents a failed approach to public safety.
And that’s how it should be. Because profiting off mass incarceration is a dirty business. When private prison company Corrections Corporation of America — or CCA — squanders taxpayer money and runs facilities rife with human rights abuses, it’s dragging its own name through the mud.
All private prison companies have corrupting incentives. One is to save money by cutting corners. Another is to promote their bottom line even when that’s not the best means to securing public safety, taxpayer value, fairness, and justice. Although CCA isn’t the only company with these incentives, it has done more than any other corporation to grow the private prison industry into a behemoth plagued by abuse and neglect and profiting off our nation’s over-reliance on incarceration.
Ask the family of Elsa Guadalupe-Gonzales. She was 24 years old when she hanged herself in her cell at one of CCA’s immigration detention facilities in Texas. Three days later, guards found Jorge Garcia-Mejia dead in his cell at the same facility. He, too, had hanged himself. Two suicides in three days, despite the fact that both Elsa and Jorge were supposed to be closely monitored by guards.
These lapses are indicative of a broader problem. CCA routinely shirks its responsibility to comply with basic standards. In Idaho, CCA employees falsified nearly 4,800 hours of staffing records. In Ohio, auditors found outrageous violations like prison without running water for toilets, in which prisoners had no choice but to use plastic bags for defecation and cups for urination.
And yet, CCA made $1.7 billion in just the last year — more than any other private prison company.
How do they do it? Although CCA insists that it does not engage in “lobbying or advocacy efforts that would influence enforcement efforts, parole standards, criminal laws, and sentencing policies,” the company pours money into both lobbying and campaign contributions. From 2002 to 2012, CCA devoted more than $19 million to lobbying Congress, and its PAC shelled out over $1.4 million to candidates for federal office during the same time period. They wouldn’t spend all that money if they didn’t think it would expand their market share.
And spending all this money has worked. CCA now manages facilities with over 90,000 prison beds in 20 states. Many of their contracts include “lockup quotas” whereby states promise to keep the company’s prisons anywhere from 80-100 percent full. That’s good for CCA, because they’re paid per day, per prisoner. It’s bad for those of us who think failed policies have led to an era in which too many people are behind bars for too long.
Such agreements incentivize states to pass needlessly harsh laws that would keep bodies flowing into CCA facilities — and cash into the pockets of CCA’s shareholders.
Lock-up quotas are only example of a policy that fills CCA’s coffers. Another could be immigration reform, if it goes badly. The House Judiciary Committee has passed the SAFE Act (HR 2278), a toxic measure that, if passed, would turn millions of undocumented immigrants into criminals overnight. No longer would lacking papers be just a civil violation; it would also become a federal crime punishable by months or years in a U.S. prison, even if the person poses no public safety risk. This move would also dramatically expand the civil immigration detention system, which could help CCA rake in huge profits since nearly half of all people in immigration detention are locked in private jails and prisons.