Private Prison Companies May Shoot For Trump Infrastructure Cash

01/27/2017 05:06 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2018

In the era of alternative facts, words have become more ambiguous than usual. So when President Donald Trump says he'll spend $1 trillion rebuilding America's infrastructure, we should look at the details to see what he really means.

Damon Hininger, CEO of the country's largest private prison company, sure thinks he knows what Trump means. To Hininger, when Trump says "infrastructure," he doesn't just mean roads and bridges, he also means prisons and jails.

Asked in a December interview about what impact Trump would have on his business, he told CNBC, "I think this whole conversation about infrastructure and the need to replace old antiquated facilities, I think we can provide a lot of value."

The "we" is Hininger's company, CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The "conversation" he was referring to is, of course, Trump's $1 trillion infrastructure plan.

But, remember, the details.

From what we know about the plan, when Trump says "rebuild," he really means "privatize." Most of that $1 trillion would be other people's money. Instead of issuing public debt--the simplest and cheapest way to build things--Trump would dangle a massive tax break to attract private investment to public infrastructure. Such "public-private partnerships" can be rife with problems--without protections, the public often loses control over policy regarding the infrastructure and workers get lower wages and fewer benefits. The tax break is just the cherry on top.

Apparently, Hininger wants in on it. CoreCivic profited $222 million in 2015 from owning and operating prisons, jails, immigration detention centers, and halfway houses. But he wants the world to know they build stuff too. When they changed their name from CCA in October, Hininger said it was about transforming the business to a "wider range of government solutions," including real estate. In fact, several years ago they changed their corporate legal status to a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT). In the interview, he even brags about it: "No one has built more facilities in the last 15 years than CoreCivic in the United States."

There's no question America needs an infrastructure upgrade. We've neglected our roads, bridges, and water systems for far too long. We've also failed to invest in new infrastructure such as light rail and broadband communications to respond to 21st century challenges and opportunities.

But we need fewer prisons, jails, and detention centers, not more. America already has the biggest incarcerated population in the world. Every dollar of profit that falls into Hininger's pockets should instead be going to reducing that population, to public programs for things like mental health care, substance abuse treatment, and education.

Private prison companies like CoreCivic don't need a tax break--because they've already got one. In 2015 alone, CoreCivic and its primary competitor, GEO Group, used their REIT status and other avenues to avoid a combined $113 million in federal income taxes.

Think about what we could do with that money. And think about what we could build and repair with $1 trillion without private strings attached. Those are details that as a society we should be focusing on--because they help everyone, not the few that already have so much.