The Growing Right Arm of For-Profit Prisons

03/27/2015 04:01 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2015

Co-authored by Sarah Callahan

The US incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. The unprecedented increase in our prison populations happened over the last 30 years, and in part is because of the prison industrial complex and the private prison industry that profits from (and contributes to) mass incarceration.

We are researchers from DePaul University. One of us focuses on the economic impacts of substance abuse and incarceration, and the other on the mental health issues of vulnerable populations. Our collective experiences, and our social justice perspective, informs our critique of profitable incarceration and aftercare.

The for-profit prison industry was born in the 1980's, as a capitalist venture that has benefited from the dramatic rise in incarceration in the US. These for-profit companies lobby for tougher sentences and anti-immigration policies and therefore profit from the detention of U.S. citizens.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, this public-private partnership combined with tough sentences has cost taxpayers billions, while lining the pockets of a select few. Privately run prisons maximize profits by providing substandard care. The ACLU has filed multiple lawsuits alleging abuse and inhumane conditions. In a 2010 report, CCA states that "any changes" to sentencing laws could stem the flow of new prisoners in the U.S., reducing "demand for correctional facilities to house them."

When inmates are released, they reenter their communities with the stigma of a criminal conviction, disenfranchised, and bereft of social and human capital.

Mass incarceration translates into huge numbers of probationers and parolees, and the for-profit prison industry like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) jumped at the opportunity to further profit from incarceration by contracting with state and federal governments to provide prisoners' reentry services, like "halfway houses" and substance abuse treatment and mental health centers.

As more prisoners are released to the community there is a corresponding need for more post-release reentry facilities. Colloquially named "halfway houses", these facilities are supposed to serve as facilitators of positive post-incarceration outcomes like crime, abstinence, and employment.

According to Prison Legal News, privately run halfway houses have been plagued with the same problems as prisons, which indicates the industry is in need of systemic improvements. Just as with privately run prisons, for-profit halfway houses have higher rates of violence, drug use, assault, and escape. Clearly, the prison industrial complex has found a way to continue to make profits despite the slight decline in incarceration rates since 2012 by continuing to provide sub-standard care outside of the prison walls.

Not all halfway houses run on business models that are operated for-profit. Grassroots organizations like Oxford House are run by people in recovery for people in recovery to help individuals reenter their communities, obtain employment, and achieve upward social and economic mobility. Further, there are for-profit models like Stepping Stones in Huntsville Alabama, and Step Two North in Chicago, which adequately address the needs of reentering citizens. Also, there are many other small to mid-sized businesses nationwide, usually owned and operated by individuals who have been through addiction and/or incarceration themselves.

There is a critical need to continue reducing prison populations with sentencing reforms. However, in addition, political and government contracts and ties to the prison industrial complex for aftercare services need to be severed. Companies like CCA and GEO Group have monetary incentives to provide inadequate care to keep their re-enrollments high, and this presents both a moral and economic conflict with the needs of prisoners, taxpayers and community members. Given the track records of for-profit prison companies, the likelihood that the quality of the aftercare or transitional services they provide will improve, is doubtful.

Imprisonment has become almost unavoidable for African Americans, the working poor, and individuals struggling with substance abuse problems. As Democrats continue to push sentencing reforms to reduce U.S. incarceration rates, it's clear that means battling powerful companies with deep monetary ties to policymakers; companies who need a consistent stream of bodies to turn a profit.

Sentencing reform will reduce prison populations, but privately run post-release housing, mental health care, and substance abuse treatment programs will not be affected by these measures.

The system makes incarceration and inhumane care profitable. Denying citizens opportunities for recovery solidifies a vicious cycle of incarceration and recidivism. Sentencing reform is important, but doesn't go far enough. Contracts for post-incarceration services must also be examined.