Are For-Profit Prisons, or Public Unions, the Biggest Lobby No One's Talking About?

Outrage over private prisons are largely a distraction from the wider issues of the prison-industrial complex.


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For-profit prisons could be a problem, in large part because of the perverse incentives created when there's money to be made from throwing people in cages. But public prisons have a lot of the same problems, and more. The "prison-industrial complex" is big business not just for the private prison companies dabbling in it but for the governments, federal, state, and local, and their employees, that use prisons as a source of revenue, jobs, and even political capital.

The Washington Post has a thinly sourced article on the lobbying efforts of for-profit prisons. The two largest, the Corrections Corporation of America, on whose board of directors former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall's son actually sits, and GEO, a big benefactor, according to the Post, to Marco Rubio since his state legislature days. How extensive are CCA and GEO's lobbying efforts? Via The Post:

The two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States – GEO andCorrections Corporation of America – and their associates have funneled more than $10 million to candidates since 1989 and have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts. Meanwhile, these private companies have seen their revenue and market share soar. They now rake in a combined $3.3 billion in annual revenue and the private federal prison population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute.

There are, according to The Post, 130 private prisons in the country with 157,000 beds. Assuming each and every bed is occupied by one prisoner, that's about 7 percent of the total U.S. prison population. But there's a far larger lobbies invested in large prison populations—corrections officers and their associated unions, whose bread and butter are the bodies the Post seems to worry only private prisons can "commodify," and police unions, whose jobs, too, are in part dependent on there being a demand to fill prisons up.

The California prison guards union, for example, poured millions of dollars to influence policy in California alone—it spent $22 million on campaign donations since 1989, more than CCA and GEO have combined, and continues to push for prison expansions. The National Fraternal Order of Police, meanwhile, spent $5 million on lobbying efforts since 1989, more than GEO did. That's not to mention the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which includes a "Corrections Union" and lobbies on behalf of all kinds of policies that seek to turn citizens into revenue sources for public employees. They've spent $187 million on campaign donations since 1989, making a far stronger case to be labeled the biggest lobby nobody's talking about than private prisons.

The left's narrative wants to suggest that public unions spend money in politics simply to get better contract deals. While that, too, is morally problematic, it's also an incomplete account. Public unions also spend money to get policies passed that will increase the value of and need for their employees, policies that will naturally treat people like revenue sources.

Despite The Post's assertions, people are cluing in to for-profit prisons, opposition to which-especially of the CCA—seems to be becoming a cause du jour on the left. The way public unions push policies that seek to turn the governed into cash cows for government employees is a far less appreciated problem. In that way, private prisons are a distraction. It's not the CCA, but government employees at all levels, who have profited more, for example, from the drug war that's fueled the rise in the U.S. prison population. In a rare moment of honesty, Hillary Clinton admitted as much when she was secretary of state, saying the drug war couldn't be ended because "there is just too much money." The Clintons know a thing or two about  how lucrative the business of government can be.