Prison overcrowding: A boon for the for-profit industry

New deals with private prison firms in California show who really benefits from mass incarceration

By Natasha Lennard
Published October 25, 2013 10:02PM (UTC)
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A Huffington Post report Friday highlights how the private prison industry relies on and benefits from mass incarceration and attendant prison overcrowding in this country.

Eerily, the article notes, the president of for-profit prison leviathan Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), David Myers, foretold, "If we build it, they will come."

And indeed a spate of recent federal and state deals have enabled the continuing growth of the Prison Industrial Complex. Overcrowding in federal and state prisons is not prompting the sort of reform desperately needed to bring down the U.S. prison population (we boast the highest incarceration rates in the entire world). Rather, the situation is proving a boon for private prisons.

"Instead of facing the sort of politically tougher questions of how to revise the sentencing structure, the state uses the private prisons as the release valve," Donald Specter, who heads the Prison Law Office, a Berkeley-based public interest firm, told HuffPo.

In attempts to close budget shortfalls and relieve overcrowded public prisons, the for-profit players are brought in, and incarceration rates continue to rise. Myer's comment was all too prescient.

As HuffPo reported:

[A]s California struggles to relieve overcrowding in one of the nation's largest prison systems, the inmates are coming by the thousands.

Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a three-year deal to lease the CCA prison at $28.5 million per year. The prison is currently occupied by federal inmates and operates at well under full capacity, according to recent reports.

Along with two other private-prison deals inked by Brown in September with a different company, the GEO Group, the move punctuates a period of extraordinary growth for the private prison industry in California. Between 2008 and 2012, CCA's revenues in the state more than doubled, even as the company's growth began to slow in other states throughout the country, according to a HuffPost analysis of the company's annual financial documents.

Advocates for prisoners' rights and their allies in the state legislature say that Brown's investments in the private prison system could hamper efforts to change California's tough sentencing laws so that fewer people go to prison in the first place.

...CCA alone holds more than 8,000 California inmates at facilities in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma. The company's new deal with California expands the state's prison capacity by an additional 2,300 prisoners, and California's contracts with the GEO Group add another 1,400. Along with an existing private prison contract in the state, the new contracts bring California's total number of private-prison inmates to about 12,300.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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California Cca For-profit Prison Jerry Brown Overcrowding Prison Industrial Complex Prisons Private Prisons