Back in 2016, it looked like the private prison industry would finally die, thanks to an Obama memo directing the DoJ to reduce their use for federal prisoners, but the sector retrenched, doubling down on the slave-labor camps it maintained for US immigration authorities, and aggressively lobbying states to jail their citizens in private prisons.
It's hard to overstate how terrible the private prison sector is, but here's a couple of examples: a paralyzed prisoner chewed his own fingers off when his Arizona private prison (operated by Corizon Correctional) refused to treat his incredible pain. Corrections Corporation of America's Louisiana prisons are so violent and corrupt that prisoners are literally starving in violent, hellish cages. Management and Training Corporation's private prisons guards (who receive less than 3 weeks' training!) watched as prisoners beat a shackled man they were transporting.
With the election of Donald Trump, things started looking up for America's gulag sector, with Core Civic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) opening slave labor camps to house asylum seekers, torturing those who refused to work; these detention facilities were so violent that prisoners begged to be kept in solitary confinement, and Uncle Sugar started handing out $1b, no-bid contracts with 100% occupancy guarantees.
As business boomed, the sector showered Republican lawmakers with cash"tax reforms" that put hundreds of millions of dollars into the shareholders' pockets (small wonder that the Canada Pension Plan became a major investor in America's private prisons).
And under Trump, private federal prisons are once again booming and the sector is expanding with new divisions devoted to halfway houses, electronic monitoring and mental health.
But the corruption, violence and sheer grift of the sector is its own undoing. Both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have promised to shut down private incarceration if elected, and now, both Democratically controlled and Republican states are kicking private prisons to the curb, with state private prisons shrinking by 12% over the past five years. A large part of the reason that states like private prisons is that they get blamed when bad things happen to prisoners, sparing the states from moral and legal culpability, but that's coming to an end as voters increasingly see through the ruse.
Corecivic/Corrections Corporation of America CEO Damon Hininger has warned investors that he anticipates a future without private prisons (he plans to adopt to the new reality by leasing property to state and federal prison systems).
22 states do not use private prison contractors, and three more have just passed legislation banning them: Nevada, Illinois and California (Colorado and Minnesota have pending legislation on the matter).
The finance sector has cut private prisons' lines of credit, with Jpmorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, BNP Paribas, Suntrust, Barclays and Bank of America cutting off customers like GEO Group.
In response, private prisons have created a media relations group called Day 1 Alliance (D1A) whose focus is "spreading its message by engaging with the media…[to counter] the false, distorted rhetoric that activists and some politicians use against this industry and the facts on the ground."
"Don't be fooled: This is an effort to defend a multi-billion dollar industry that regularly gouges American taxpayers and take attention away form the conditions in these jails," Families Belong Together Chairwoman Jess Morales Rocketto wrote in a statement, "The private prison industry has a long and documented history of abusing people in their care."
Whether D1A is able to successfully rebut this sentiment remains to be seen; it is clear doing so will be difficult given state and federal politicians, activists, other corporations, and members of the public are pushing for the complete closure of private prisons. With over 100,000 inmates currently incarcerated in private prisons, the industry is not yet at its deathbed. But there are signs the successful legislation in California and Nevada has inspired lawmakers elsewhere: Minnesota and Colorado are both working on bills that would abolish for-profit prisons.
Private prisons face an uncertain future as states turn their backs on the industry
(Image: William Warby, CC BY, modified)