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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.

Rennett Stowe/flickrRennett Stowe/flickrFor-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.

Photo Credit: Rennett Stowe/flickr

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Corporations or unions. You only get to have one demon.

  • Paul.||

    I refuse to pay my rent! Go ahead, evict me from this prison! I DARE you!

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    Are unions incorporated?

  • Puddin' Stick||

    I think it depends upon the state... in Florida, they are.

  • Jay Dubya||

    They would have to be incorporated in some manner everywhere.

  • Raven Nation||

    If corporations or entrepreneurs are ineffective or corrupt it is because of the insidious power of money. Therefore, they should be shut down, penalized, impoverished and destroyed.

    If governments or public servants are ineffective or corrupt, it is because they don't have enough money and therefore should be given more.

  • Vampire||

    Thissss^

  • jfenner67||

    Nailed it!

  • tenderbrew||

    Got to admit, didn't even realize until this article that if all beds were full that only 7% would be private prisons. Per what friends and family have said, I would have assumed that at LEAST 95% of all American prisons were private.

  • Puddin' Stick||

    Time to find out which states have private prisons and if the Federal government has them...

  • crab_apple||

    This "for-profit prisons are evil" meme got started on the left because they can't resist any urge to criticize capitalism, but the narrow focus on only for profit prisons tells me that they don't actually give a shit about the mistreatment of prisoners. Have you seen the publicly run ones?! I'm not convinced the for-profit ones are actually worse than those. They are both awful and inhumane...

  • ||

    Agreed. The left doesn't give a damn about needlessly sending people to prison. That's a stalking horse for their fight against all things capitalism. If there were zero for-profit prisons in the country, they'd have zero problems with the exact same conditions in government operated prisons.

  • silent v||

    they don't actually give a shit about the mistreatment of prisoners.

    And it's too bad they don't. Private prisons provide a great opportunity to tie prison revenue to metrics like inmate violence and recidivism rates and use the profit motive to improve jails and society in general.

  • Tony||

    Trust me, liberals have thought the issue through in all of its aspects. That private prisons indict capitalism is just a bonus, really. The main perversion is how profit incentives lead to more laws that shovel people into cages.

  • Murray Got hard||

    People profit under every system you dimwit

  • ant1sthenes||

    If that were true of -every- system, the USSR and China would have developed a class of corrupt, wealthy oligarchs. So who's the dimwit now?

  • Murray Got hard||

    sarc/?

  • Dweebston||

    And predictably you come down on reducing the profits rather than the laws. "Liberals have thought through the issue" and concluded that appeasing public sector unions is the more important consideration.

  • Tony||

    Liberals believe in people's right to unionize and are not about to sit back and let the evil corporate vampirism you guys worship eliminate their last bastion. This is not about unions, you're just making it about unions because you are dogmatists for whom the answer to every question is "because government sucks." It could be a fucking stubbed toe.

  • Murray Got hard||

    clearly it is about unions as they have lobbied the goverment to take up these policies

  • Robert||

    30 yrs. ago or so, prison privatiz'n was one of Reason's hobby horses, along w privatizing all other gov't services & fx. At least one article lauded private prisons as significantly better than gov't-operated ones.

  • Murray Got hard||

    point?

  • Robert||

    Actually the "left" does care about prison conditions. It's been pointed out that some of the more "progressive" countries in Europe have prisons that aren't punitive at all. & that's the way "leftists" would like it: where we're all in prison & like it there. A gov't-run prison, of course.

  • Puddin' Stick||

    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.

    Cities and counties where prisons are located...

  • RAHeinlein||

    Prisons, military bases, Sriracha factories...

  • airforce||

    I should first point out that I worked for many years for Corrections Corporation of America. With that out of the way, I don't understand the libertarian opposition to private prisons. Private prisons exist because they run prisons cheaper, better, and more efficiently than the government does, which should come as no surprise to anyone here.

    I'm a free market anarchist, but even I know that there are people who really do need to be locked up, for the good of society, and even ultimately for the good of the offender. If you think the government should be doing it, why?

  • Raven Nation||

    FEE did a piece on this noting the problems with privatization in some states where it is just another version of crony capitalism:

    http://fee.org/freeman/detail/cage-complex

  • Hugh Akston||

    Government contracts are notoriously rife with graft, waste, and nepotism.

  • Robert||

    Yet Reason used to be a think tank devoted in large part to developing more contracting-out of gov't fx. The idea is that no matter how corrupt contracting was, it couldn't be worse than direct gov't oper'n of facilities.

  • Jay Dubya||

    The Reason Foundation still exists, and they still support private prisons.

  • sarcasmic||

    but even I know that there are people who really do need to be locked up, for the good of society, and even ultimately for the good of the offender.

    I disagree. All prison does is teach people how to live in prison, and that's not a skill that translates well into normal society. I'm a firm believer in pain and public humiliation as punishment. Lock a shoplifter in the stocks for an afternoon, lick a burglar's back with a whip, and let murderers and rapists swing from a rope. Bring children to see so they know what happens when they break society's laws (I listed those crimes specifically because they have victims. If I were king there would be no victimless "crimes."). Prison is a twofold loss to society. First society pays to lock up the person, and second the person doesn't contribute economically to society. If someone is so dangerous that they need to be locked away, then they should never be let loose again. If someone isn't that much of a danger to society in general, then nothing is to be gained by locking them up, other than padding the wallets of the people who cage them.

  • Hugh Akston||

    It's a good thing I know everything you post is supposed to be read sarcastically, otherwise I would think you were some kind of brutal monster.

  • Tony||

    Apart from ye olde timey forms of punishment you endorse, I pretty much agree with you. I'm not convinced punishment should be the state's concern except to whatever extent it actually serves some social purpose like deterrence.

  • sarcasmic||

    Apart from ye olde timey forms of punishment you endorse, I pretty much agree with you.

    Then you don't agree with me.

    I'm not convinced punishment should be the state's concern

    That should be its only concern.

    except to whatever extent it actually serves some social purpose like deterrence.

    Except that deterrence has been proven not work.

    I must congratulate you though. Every time I think you couldn't make a more vapid and inane comment, you manage to top the last. You certainly are the poster child for YOU CAN'T FIX STUPID.

  • Tony||

    So what's the point of punishment?

  • Jay Dubya||

    "Bring children to see so they know what happens when they break society's laws"

    So you would like to *deter* those children from committing crimes in the future? By making the punishment a public spectacle? Why do that if deterrence doesnt work?

  • Vampire||

    So when you advocate theft, then you agree you should suffer the consequences you don't as of now?

  • Paul.||

    With privatization the fear is that there are/could be financial incentives in keeping people locked up, often by piling on petty infractions which lengthen the sentence of an inmate.

    A private prison by itself has potentially dangrous incentives because its customer is the government, not the people staying in their hotel.

  • Murray Got hard||

    We have to make the distinction between crony privatization and real privatization. crony privatization (what usually occurs) is when a government service is outsourced to only one company and that company is granted monopoly power.

  • Tony||

    People should be free to form unions. If someone's union gets him a deal you perceive as unfair, tough titties, that's the market at work. There, glad I could provide a libertarian perspective on that issue.

    Libertarians, being able to perceive painfully obvious realities, if not the less obvious ones, muster just enough thought to be against private prisons even if they must strain to find a way to blame government anyway in order to maintain dogmatic purity. Of course the motivational underpinnings of this corrupt system and others that involve taxpayer money all come from capitalism, and do not disappear with anti-government prescriptions. Privatization of "public goods" always ends badly, and blame government for the bad policy if you like, but the perversities that drive cronyism are capitalism's. Government is indeed not strong enough if it is able to be manipulated by for-profit interests.

  • Murray Got hard||

    The drug war is a product of capitalism?
    For-profit prisons are a tiny percentage of the prisons.
    Government is as big as ever and more manipulated by coporate intrests than ever.
    Government employees are also considered with profits, evident in the police unions lobbying efforts

  • Tony||

    You don't think capitalism plays a large role in the prohibition of certain drugs that are far less harmful than say the ones with patents on them sold by large corporations? Public mania is a legacy reason too, which influences government policy, same with over-incarceration. The question is whether government can resist for-profit interests enough to act on behalf of more modern public sentiments on both issues, and weakening government only makes this more difficult. There's a reason small-government folks want to drown government in a bathtub--so private interests can take the money power for themselves.

  • Murray Got hard||

    If you think people wanting to make money and achieve personal gain is limited to capitalism you are naive. And all of the problems we are facing are not from government being too small or not strong enough, but form a government that's tentacles reach into many aspects of our lives. And the drug war was (as you seem to say) spurred by public ant-drug sentiment (stoked by self-serving political demagogues) and racism.
    If you think that expanding the scope and power of government will improve the situation you are beyond help

  • Tony||

    I don't believe in the formulation that government gets bigger or smaller. Its share of GDP is irrelevant in these discussions. This is a discussion of good vs. bad policy, and government can be any size and do either. My point is that private interests having too much power incentivizes bad policy in this case.

  • Murray Got hard||

    The existence of private prisons clearly is not causing the drug war or mass incarceration so the private prisons are largely a red herring

  • sarcasmic||

    You don't think capitalism plays a large role in the prohibition of certain drugs that are far less harmful than say the ones with patents on them sold by large corporations?

    Who enforces the patents? Yeah. They're the problem, not the ones who seek them.

  • Murray Got hard||

    Funny the guy complaining about dogmatic purity finds a way to blame every social ill on cpaitalism and profit

  • Dweebston||

    It's not funny, neither humorous nor odd. He is, like all lefties, an utterly unprincipled git. If cronies hadn't been able to wheedle sweetheart deals from municipalities he'd have nothing whatsoever to say about it. When unions manage to assert their self-interest above their clients (teachers, for example) it's a credible exercise of market dynamics. When businesses bid on public contacts, it's perversity incarnate. Libertarians look aghast at both, but to the sensibilities of a lefty apologist only the latter registers.

  • ||

    Is there a level of government strength that would make the individual politicians and bureaucrats that compose it immune to greed?

  • Tony||

    Strength of government in this context means checks and balances.

  • Murray Got hard||

    The checks and balances were more effective when goverment was smaller. Ex: Pre-1935 supreme court restrained the scope of goverment and refuse to give deference to roosevelt

  • Calidissident||

    How does that square with reality given that only a tiny percentage of prisons are private? Private or not, the incentive for corruption and abuse for personal gain exists. That isn't limited to capitalism, which is a fatal error leftists make in their analysis of society. And it's only "capitalism" under a very broad definition where anything involving private ownership = capitalism, which by itself isn't remotely close to a system the vast majority of capitalists (especially libertarians) actually advocate. Private prisons do not operate on market principles at all.

  • sarcasmic||

    People should be free to form unions.

    I think you'll find that most libertarians will agree with that statement, so long as the people aren't government employees.

    The difference being that a private sector employer can't use violence to make people pay for what they don't think is worth the union-inflated price, while government can. That and because government, by definition, has no competitor within a given geographical area.

    Not that I expect a distinction-challenged person such as yourself to comprehend the difference I describe.

  • sarcasmic||

    People should be free to form unions.

    I think you'll find that most libertarians will agree with that statement, so long as the people aren't government employees.

    The difference being that a private sector employer can't use violence to make people pay for what they don't think is worth the union-inflated price, while government can. That and because government, by definition, has no competitor within a given geographical area.

    Not that I expect a distinction-challenged person such as yourself to comprehend the difference I describe.

  • sarcasmic||

    Oops.

  • Tony||

    I know, you're for less freedom than I. Not news to me. Union wages aren't inflated, they are market prices. People who would restrict the freedom of people to unionize are deflating wages.

  • ||

    Why are you people playing with Tulpa?

  • Dweebston||

    Because I'm not allowed to throttle the mouthbreathing lefty reactionaries with whom I rub shoulders, so I make do heaping derision on trolls.

  • sarcasmic||

    aye

  • Murray Got hard||

    :')

  • Murray Got hard||

    :')

  • E.M.||

    Both are terrible ideas. I think that this is one of those things that ought to be left up to the state.

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