As the trend toward privatizing state prison systems continues to skyrocket, Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest operator of for-profit prisons, is offering to purchase scores more facilities all across the country provided states will guarantee occupancy rates of at least 90 percent over the next 20 years.
In a letter penned to government officials in at least 48 different states earlier this year, CCA Corrections Director Harley Lappin, formerly the director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, outlined the Nashville-based company’s plan and interest in brokering such a at a grand estimated cost of at least $250 million.
The proposal, further billed as “a new opportunity for federal, state and local governments that are considering the benefits of partnership corrections,” goes on to more or less browbeat state officials into agreeing to its terms as a means of assisting governments in managing “challenging corrections budgets.”
“We believe this comes at a timely and helpful juncture and hope you will share our belief in the benefits of the purchase-and-manage model,” said Lappin.
With many states already struggling to balance budgets and maintain city services, Corp. of America officials are further pushing the idea as a way for cash-strapped states to begin cutting costs and maximizing savings.
As exhibit A, they point to a similar deal the company entered into just last year with the state of Ohio to purchase the 1,798-bed Lake Erie Correctional Institution at a projected annual savings of $3 million. “We view it as an investment initiative, an additional option for states to save money” said company spokesperson Steve Owen.
Over the last two decades, CCA, a giant along Wall Street, has seen profits increase five times over by contracting with state governments and aggressively capitalizing on the trend toward expanding the number of state institutions. Initially the trend seemed tied to the so-called ‘war on drugs’ crusades on the late 80s and early 90s. Nowadays it appears largely connected to movement of incarcerating undocumented immigrants.
As a Texas senator, John Whitmire is one who’s accustomed to crunching numbers to provide services. But in this instance, it’s that very approach that gives him the greatest pause.
"You don't want a prison system operating with the goal of maximizing profits," he said of the whole industry trend toward privatization. "The only thing worse is that this (proposal) seeks to take advantage of some states' troubled financial position."
Equally drawing the ire of concerned civil rights activist is the whole notion of guaranteeing prison occupancy rates and, virtually through osmosis, arrests and conviction figures. With blacks and other minorities already composing roughly three-fourths of the entire prison population, the fear is even more of them may now be targeted for long-term incarceration if for no other reason than to maintain contractually agreed upon quotas.
Still others are leery such an arrangement may ultimately even come to affect the psyches and decision-making processes of various judges, with some coming to consider new and additional acts as criminal and others doling out stiffer and harsher sentences, all in the name of making certain prison populations remain at a premium. Already, over the last two decades as the whole privatization movement has been reignited, overall prison numbers (280,000 in 1970 to 2,000,000 in 2000) have exploded nearly seven times over.
Beyond that, a series of recent studies has also cast doubt and aspersion upon companies like CCA primary claims that they also offer and provide a greater level of efficiency in manning such institutions. Based on research from a cross sector of institutions, investigators found claims of huge savings are often misleading, as most comparisons fail to account for such factors as extra administrative expenses or differences in health care costs.
And yet, so prevalent has it become, it’s now even extended beyond the confines of prison walls, as evidenced by Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s recent crusade to privatize all 20 of that state’s work release centers, including three each in mainstays counties Pinellas and South Florida. Currently, roughly half of the state’s 33 centers have gone the way of privatization.
"That’s my concern, that our state would be obligated to maintain these (occupancy) rates and subtle pressure would be applied to make sentencing laws more severe with a clear intent to drive up the population," said former Kansas secretary of corrections Roger Werholtz. “States may be tempted by the quick infusion of cash, but I wouldn’t recommend against such a deal.”
In addition, many are puzzled over just how Lappin could justify any involvement at all in such a venture so soon after having left a related senior government position. Federal law currently prohibits designated federal executives from doing business with their former agencies for at least a year following their departure.
"He's clearly using his connections (in the public prison industry) and is now attempting to profit from it," Whitmire said of Lappin’s June 2011 appointment. Added American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project staff attorney David Shapiro: “His role is "part of the continuing revolving door" between government and private industry. It is definitely a concern."
Though Owen goes to great lengths to defend the company’s methods and Lappin’s overall involvement with its direction, national Council of Prison Locals president Dale Deshotel isn’t overly convinced with his explanation.
“There seems a conflict of interest… there is no distinction to me,” he said of contentions Lappin’s letter was never forwarded to state governments and none of his former federally employed top-brass colleagues.
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.