Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the world's largest for-profit incarcerator, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have this in common: the desire to buy prison space. In 2009, PETA sought to rent out a prison in Virginia and turn it into a "chicken empathy museum." And CCA recently launched a campaign to buy prisons across the country and turn them into, well... prisons. The newly-minted "Corrections Investment Initiative," announced by CCA in letters sent to officials in 48 states, would have the corporation spending up to $250 million to buy and privatize state prisons and then take over operating the facilities.
Today, a broad coalition of 60 organizations called on states to reject CCA's proposal. In three letters sent to governors, these groups -- including the ACLU, the Teamsters, the NAACP, the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ/Justice and Witness Ministries and the Presbyterian Criminal Justice Network -- noted that CCA's offer is an invitation to perpetuate the nation's addiction to mass incarceration.
Sure, at first blush, an injection of CCA money into government coffers might seem attractive to cash-strapped states. But here's the rub: states would be paying CCA for this short-term cash infusion with the liberties and freedoms of its citizens. See, for the corporation to buy a prison, a state would have to agree to keep it 90 percent full and CCA-operated for at least 20 years.
Committing to full prisons and heavy prison spending for 20 years is a terrible idea. The United States imprisons far more people -- both per capita and in absolute terms - than any other nation in the world, including Russia, China and Iran. Over the past four decades, imprisonment in the United States has increased explosively, spurred by criminal laws that impose steep sentences and curtail opportunities for probation and parole. The current incarceration rate deprives record numbers of individuals of their liberty, disproportionately affects people of color, and has at best a minimal effect on public safety. The crippling cost of imprisoning increasing numbers of Americans saddles government budgets with rising debt and exacerbates the current fiscal crisis confronting states. Meanwhile, the private prison industry reaps lucrative rewards from this incarceration epidemic.
Many states have finally taken serious steps to reduce mass imprisonment, but new long-term contracts for full prisons would hamper those efforts. That would be bad news for the nation, but good news for CCA. As the corporation admits in SEC filings: "The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by... leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices..."
After all, if states do the hard work of reining in binge spending on corrections by reducing prison populations, what could CCA do with the surplus of prison beds that would result? Rent them to PETA?