Follow the Prison Money Trail

By Talvi, Silja J. A. | In These Times, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Follow the Prison Money Trail


Talvi, Silja J. A., In These Times


WHILE NEW MEXICO'S landscape may make the state the Land of Enchantment, its rapidly growing rates of incarceration have been utterly disenchanting. What's worse, New Mexico is at the top of the nation's list for privatizing prisons; nearly one-half of the state's prisons and jails are run by corporations.

Supposedly, states turn to private companies to cope better with chronic overcrowding and for low-cost management. However, a closer look suggests a different rationale. A recent report from the Montana-based Institute on Money in State Politics reveals that during the 2002 and 2004 election cycles, private prison companies, directors, executives and lobbyists gave $3.3 million to candidates and state political parties across 44 states.

According to Edwin Bender, executive director of the Institute on Money in State Politics, private prison companies strongly favor giving to states with the toughest sentencing laws-in essence, the ones that are more likely to come up with the bodies to fill prison beds. Those states, adds Bender, are also the ones most likely to have passed "three-strikes" laws. Those laws, first passed by Washington state voters in 1993 and then California voters in 1994, quickly swept the nation. They were largely based on "cookie-cutter legislation" pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), some of whose members come from the ranks of private prison companies.

Florida leads the pack in terms of private prison dollars, with its candidates and political parties receiving almost 20 percent of their total contributions from private prison companies and their affiliates. Florida already has five privately owned and operated prisons, with a sixth on the way. It's also privatized the bulk of its juvenile detention system. Texas and New Jersey are close behind.

But in Florida, some of the influence peddling finally seems to be backfiring. Florida State Corrections Secretary James McDonough alarmed private prison companies with a comment during an Aug. 2 morning call-in radio show. "I actually think the state is better at running the prisons," McDonough told an interviewer. His comments followed an internal audit last year by the state's Department of Management Services, which demonstrated that Florida overpaid private prison operators by $1.3 million.

Things may no longer be quite as sunny as they once were in Florida for the likes of Nashville, Tenn.-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the former Wackenhut, now known as the GEO Group of Boca Raton, Fla. But with a little bit of spiel-tinkering-and a shift of attention to other states-the prison privatizers are likely to keep going.

The key shift, Bender explains, is that "the prison industry has gone from a we-can-save-you-money pitch to an economic-development model pitch. …

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