Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private incarceration company in the world, today convenes its annual shareholder meeting. Participants will pore over profit and revenue figures, but the more important issue is one that won’t be discussed – should for-profit prisons exist at all?
It’s a question that companies like CCA don’t want anyone asking.
They’d prefer to remain shrouded by a veil of secrecy shielding them from scrutiny, all the while raking in billions of taxpayer dollars each year and locking up nearly 130,000 men and women. They want to continue to operate out of public view, and enjoy their inexplicable exemption from the Freedom of Information Act.
During the past few years, CCA has voted down shareholder resolutions demanding accountability in political contributions, and management this year is seeking to kill a stockholder proposal for greater transparency in efforts to curb prisoner rape. Earlier this year, CCA quietly sent officials in 48 states a letter, later leaked to the media, seeking to buy up state prisons.
But the taxpayers who finance private prisons, the communities where these facilities are situated, and the families whose loved ones are imprisoned in for-profit lockups deserve real answers about privatized incarceration. That’s why the American Civil Liberties Union has invited CCA Chief Executive Damon Hininger to participate in a 90-minute public debate on whether his company – or any company – should be in the business of locking people up for money.
Our view is simple: Private prisons are big government at its worst. The industry’s business model depends on extracting as much public money as possible by locking up the maximum number of people. While industry supporters have long touted supposed cost savings, several studies have found no significant reduction in cost.
The best way to cut prison spending is not to be distracted by privatization schemes but to reduce the number of people we imprison through smart criminal justice reform, including shorter sentences for minor infractions. Unprecedented levels of incarceration cripple state budgets and take money away from schools and roads – to say nothing of depriving record numbers of individuals of liberty, disproportionately affecting people of color, and doing nothing to improve public safety.
CCA was long connected with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a secretive organization recently thrust into public light for its role in pushing “stand your ground” laws. The Council was also a driving force behind “truth in sentencing” statutes – the sort of laws that lengthen sentences and keep prisons full. CCA denies advocating for longer sentences. As CCA angles to buy prisons from state governments, however, it is noteworthy that there is a major catch: states must assure the corporation that the prisons will be 90 percent full for at least 20 years. And as mass incarceration damages the country as a whole, private prisons reap lucrative rewards. Mr. Hininger, as CCA’s head, received more than $3.5 million in executive compensation in 2011.
Privatized incarceration also presents a grave threat to human rights. Last year, the ACLU of Texas sued CCA after an officer sexually abused multiple immigration detainees. A CCA prison in Idaho was dubbed the “Gladiator School” due to extreme levels of violence. In March, a federal judge described conditions in a private prison run by another for-profit company as “a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.”
Mr. Hininger no doubt disagrees with much of what has been said here, but as Upton Sinclair observed, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” That is why transparency is so important, and why a public debate must occur. Can CCA’s claims about the benefits of privatization, which include everything from reduced costs to high-quality facilities, survive scrutiny? Or does the company reason backwards from its bottom line?