Now some of you might think that title is a bit of exaggeration; hyperbole, even. But I assure you, it’s not. See, CCA recently sent a letter to the governors of 48 states, offering to purchase prisons currently operated by state or local governments and operate the facilities. That in theory may not sound so terrible, if you ignore all the issues that plague the private prison industry and its consistent failure to deliver on its promises of cost-savings. But the letter, written by Harley Lappin, former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (who coincidentally wrote a pretty scathing report of private prisons in that role), doesn’t just offer an influx of cash in the short-term for budget-crunched state officials. Its true intention is much more sinister.
In order to get CCA to purchase a prison, a state or government entity that contracts with them will have to agree to maintain 90% occupancy at the prison, for a contract term of no less than 20 years. What that means is that states who agree to sell a prison to CCA would commit a significant amount of fiscal resources to the company for the next two decades. Governments would also be required to either redistribute prisoners from government prisons if the population declines (which is really important, considering state prison populations have declined for 2 straight years), or pay CCA for empty beds. So what this letter really amounts to is offering a binding, generation-spanning commitment for governments to continue to financially support an industry that an increasing body of research shows doesn’t save money and performs less efficiently than the public sector. Further, it would continue our nation’s over-reliance on incarceration as it would dissuade state legislators and officials from seeking meaningful criminal justice reform, by removing a primary incentive to reduce our absurdly overblown prison population.
Unfortunately, some governments have already started to be lured in by this asinine proposal; Tennessee state officials are considering selling the Clifton state prison to the company. But as the plan’s true intentions became clear, a host of advocacy groups have started to speak out publicly in opposition to the proposal. Letters from a coalition of faith-based groups and from civil rights and other advocacy organizations have come pouring into governors’ offices across the country. CCA is of course already lashing out at these groups with their typical criticism, but opponents should remain undeterred. Any state representative who even considers this proposal is, either willingly or not, considering the continuation of the foolishness that has caused the US to lead the entire world in locking its own people up.