"Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?"
"The same thing we do every night, Pinky — try to take over the world!"
Recently we learned that the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the country, sent a letter to 48 state governors offering to buy up their state-owned and operated prisons and put them under CCA control. If offering cash-strapped states a quick infusion of money by taking control of prisons off their hands sounds too good to be true, that’s because it probably is.
See, to take CCA up on its offer to buy a prison, a state would have to sign a 20-year contract and promise a 90 percent occupancy rate over that period. In other words, CCA is asking states to commit to maintaining prisons filled to capacity. This makes sense, since CCA is a for-profit business whose success depends on keeping prisons full, something CCA freely admits. In fact, in a 2010 Annual Report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, CCA stated: “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by...leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices.” In other words, CCA has much to gain from policies that lock up more people for more time.
Historically, CCA and other private prisons companies have built their own prisons and charged states fees to house their prisoners. This practice in itself is deeply worrying — For-profit facilities have incentives to cut corners. For example, private prisons generally pay officers less, leading to higher rates of turnover and less experienced staff.
Last year, Ohio became the first state to sell a prison that it built, owned and operated to CCA. This idea was proposed to state legislators as a way to get a quick influx of money in a cash-strapped economy. Unfortunately, evidence that private prisons save money is mixed at best; numerous studies have repeatedly shown that private prisons do not offer the savings they claim that they do or may even increase the cost to states. For example, a recent study by Arizona's Department of Corrections showed that it may be more expensive to incarcerate inmates in private prisons than in state-run facilities.
Private prisons are bad news for many reasons — they rely on the mass incarceration of Americans, have incentives to cut corners at the expense of public safety and the well-being of prisoners and have not convincingly been shown to save states money. For all those reasons and more, states should be wary of this new offer from CCA.
Nineties cartoon aficionados know that Brain’s daily plans for world domination were regularly foiled by Pinky’s antics. We can only hope CCA’s quest to create its very own for-profit prison empire by buying up prisons all over America will meet the same fate.
Note: This post has been edited to clarify the content of CCA's letter.