John Burnett’s piece on today’s Morning Edition covered some Texas towns’ disillusionment with private prisons and jails. Texas has more privately run correctional facilities than any other state. As Burnett points out, small towns all over the state allowed (and in some cases, courted) companies like GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America only to find that once beds weren’t being filled in all these new jails and prisons, the structures became economic blights on the community.
Meanwhile, private prisons have become a $5 billion dollar industry. With a downward trend in incarceration, how has the private sector continued to grow?
A related piece in Business Week a couple weeks ago explains the phenomenon. In his story, “A Boom Behind Bars,” Graeme Wood illustrates how CCA and other private prison operators are cashing in on the crackdown on illegal immigration– sparking a new prison boom. Wood writes that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) pays CCA “about $90 a day per person to keep immigrants behind bars and to manage every aspect of detainees’ lives, running its prison much as the government does. The main difference is that CCA locks people up for profit.”
And, according to public employee unions and prisoners rights groups, the profitable nature of the enterprise creates a built in conflict of interest: “When every prisoner is a daily $100 bill, say these opponents, you’ll do everything you can to get as many of them as you can.”
Wood, who visited a facility in Texas, found some merit in that point:
“Last year we removed more criminals out of this office than from any office across the country,” Tai Nguyen, the ICE assistant field office director, says with some pride, as he leads a tour through the Houston Processing Center. “And typically, we always exceed last year’s numbers.” The CCA facility’s volume has grown so fast that in 2005, as the illegal immigrant crackdown began in earnest, it underwent an expansion and overhaul that doubled its bed space. In that year alone, ICE nationwide increased its demand for beds from 19,000 spaces to 27,000, as a result of stricter enforcement of immigration law under Michael Chertoff’s Homeland Security Dept.
Further fueling the argument, NPR reported last year that CCA lobbied to pass SB 1070, Arizona’s controversial plan for immigration crack-down–a story they say is overblown.
But “whether or not CCA is responsible for the recent surge in demand,” Wood writes, “the boom is under way.”