While President Bill Clinton, gun owners, lawmen and others lobbied furiously for and against the crime bill, the people who build and operate private prisons were too busy to pay much attention.
They're in the midst of a building boom, and their future growth and profits seemed guaranteed long before Congress finally passed the record $30.2 billion bill.
"We didn't have any lobbyists on Capitol Hill," said Peggy Lawrence, a spokeswoman for Corrections Corp. of America, the nation's largest private prison builder and manager. "We already have a fairly full plate. And besides, we know that one way or the other more funds would have to be found for prisons."
True enough. The crime bill that Congress passed contains $9.9 billion to help states pay for new prisons. The inmate total nationwide is 1.4 million, up 55 percent from 1987, and the number is certain to grow.
Corrections Corp. of America, based in Nashville, Tenn., is building four new prisons. The firm already operates or manages 17 prisons in the United States.
The corporation's income rose 33 percent during the first six months of this year compared with the same period last year. During the heat of the debate in Congress on the crime bill, Correction Corp. shares rose 11 percent.
Corrections Corp. emerged a decade ago as one of the first of a new wave of for-profit prison operators and now has 20 competitors. One of them is Wackenhut Corrections Corp., which runs a close second to Corrections Corp. in the for-profit prison business. Together, they house half of the 44,000 inmates housed at prisons run by private outfits.
Like Corrections Corp., Wackenhut didn't lobby for the crime bill either, but kept tabs on developments from its offices in Coral Gables, Fla.
"I always thought it was inevitable Congress would have to pass some sort of crime bill, because crime is the public's top concern," said George Zoley, the company's president and chief executive.
Wackenhut, too, is doing well. So far this year, the company won contracts to build a 771-inmate prison in Britain, a …