March 7, 2012. Nashville. Here’s a simple fact. Americans are either the most evil, wicked and criminal people on Earth or the United States is a bona fide police state. One of those two statements, based on the facts, has to be true. For years, the US has been the world’s leader in imprisoning its own people. We not only incarcerate the most people by percentage, but by shear volume as well. And while the corporate media tells America how authoritarian the Russians, Iranians and North Koreans are, Wall Street corporations are making millions off of it.
Current map of for-profit CCA prisons across America. Image courtesy of CCA.com.
In 2008, the New York Times detailed the skyrocketing American prison epidemic. Something seemed ‘off’ when looking at the numbers and comparing them to what we’ve all been told over the years. For instance, America has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. And at the same time, more than 20 percent of the world’s jailed are in the US.
For comparison’s sake, the US has 2.3 million people in prison. China, with four times the population and a Communist military dictatorship for a government, has only 1.6 million prisoners. The country with the least number of prisoners is San Marino, population 30,000. That tiny nation had only one single inmate at the time of the report in 2008. In the US by contrast, 1 out of every 100 adults is in jail.
The Times article does point out that China also has a few hundred thousand people inducted in mandatory ‘re-education centers’. But then the US imprisons children and even jails prisoners in their own homes when there’s no more room. So, specific numbers from any country or government are going to be blurry.
Here’s how some of the world’s industrialized nations stack up to each other (from the New York Times):
Country (citizens in prison out of every 100,000)
*The average rate among all nations of the world is 125. That means the US rate is 6-times the global average. Again, are Americans the most wicked people in the world or do Americans live in a police state?
The Times article reports that the skyrocketing US incarceration rate is actually a new phenomenon. From 1925 to 1975, the incarceration rate in the US was in line with the world average at 110 per 100,000. But something happened in the late 1970’s and 1980’s that changed the very fabric of American society. Ask a dozen different scholars to explain the explosion in jailed Americans and one will likely get a dozen different explanations. The most popular reasons cited are:
-rampant drug addiction
-longer than average prison sentences
-social acceptance of violence and weapons
-national drug policy, specifically marijuana
-lack of social safety nets
-imprisonment for victimless, non-violent crimes
That’s right, even America’s system of democracy is blamed for the unprecedented incarceration rate in the US. Apparently, the United States is one of the only nations that elect judges by popular vote. That, scholars insist, fuels vigilante activism in courts and leads to harsher than average prison sentences.
Another fact regarding rampant drug abuse and drug policy – in 1980, there were 40,000 Americans in prison for drug crimes. By 2008, that number had jumped to over 500,000. And for length in sentences, consider that a burglar in the US serves an average sentence of 16 months. That compares to 7 months in England and 5 months in Canada.
The statistics brought out in the report also show that not all states in the US are equal. For every 100,000 citizens, Louisiana led the nation with 1,138. Texas was close with 1,000. On the other end of the spectrum, Maine had the lowest incarceration rate at 273, with Minnesota coming a close second at 300.
Profiting on prisons
While experts can’t agree as to why the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, most will agree that certain corporations are getting rich from it. The largest and oldest of them all – Corrections Corporation of America. Founded in 1983, the for-profit nationwide prison system currently incarcerates 75,000 Americans. The corporation operates more than 60 corporate prisons in 19 states. States with the highest number of CCA prisons are Texas, Tennessee and Arizona.
According to a report from the Huffington Post two weeks ago, CCA is maneuvering to expand even more. Their business model is simple – the more Americans put in jail, the more CCA profits.
The article detailed a quiet campaign by CCA in which the company sent letters to government officials in 48 states, presumably excluding Alaska and Hawaii. In the letters, CCA offers to rescue the states and municipalities from their budget deficits and skyrocketing prison costs. The deal the corporation offers involves each state’s selling its prisons to CCA. The company would then operate the jails at a per capita cost less than the taxpayers are currently paying per prisoner. The offer promises to be a win-win for the American people.
The only guarantee CCA asks for in return is a promise that the state provide enough convicted Americans to keep each prison filled to a minimum of 90 percent capacity at all times.
The Huffington Post report quotes the letter from CCA to state officials around the country. “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," reads the letter from Harley Lappin, CCA’s chief corrections officer, who was a former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The state of Ohio recently sold one of its state prisons to CCA. Not only were politicians in the state able to reduce their budget deficit with the one-time purchase payment, but they expect to save $3 million per year going forward.
Critics argue that CCA and state officials friendly to the corporation are fudging the statistics and the alleged cost-savings. The report mentions a 2010 audit by Arizona that showed there were actually no cost-savings using private prisons like CCA. In their study, they revealed that there was in fact a difference in cost to house prisoners between CCA and the state of Arizona. But they insist that difference only exists because CCA will not take medical special needs prisoners. It’s the additional cost of medical care that only the state provides that makes CCA appear cheaper. In Florida, where the state is considering privatizing two dozen prisons, a state research report warned legislators of the same fuzzy math saying, “cost savings estimates are subject to caveats and should be evaluated cautiously."
The Huffington Post report quotes Corrections Corporation of America CEO Damon Hininger from an investor conference call last quarter, “We continue to believe we are very well-positioned in a market that, despite the economic pressures faced by our customers, has provided healthy financial performance. Indeed, it is because of these pressures, which lead to severe capital constraints and the need to avoid increasing their pension liabilities, that we believe our value proposition to customers is getting stronger."
Go back to that mandatory 90 percent incarceration rate
Civil libertarians across the country are fuming mad over the invitation by CCA to take over the country’s prison systems. "It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," ACLU policy director Shakyra Diaz told the Huffington Post, "In order to have it at 90 percent, you need to be able to make criminals to fill it at 90 percent."
Civil rights advocates aren’t the only ones up in arms. Former CCA prison guards and employees have taken to the internet to spread their stories of horror inside CCA facilities. The website RipoffReport.com features a handful of complaints, including one from a former prison guard. He writes:
‘When Corrections Corporation of America opened its largest correctional center to date, I was one of the first officers hired to work there. When we were in training, we were told that the inmates would be level one and two. That meant that they would be fairly low-risk and not as dangerous. Keep in mind, that CCA is a contract prison business, and all the inmates at LaPalma, Arizona would be from California. We were also told that, because it was a new facility and due to us being in the first training class, that we would all surely be promoted very quickly.
Well, needless to say, the inmates were mostly level 3 and level 4 (Arizona prohibits level 4 inmates to be contracted to the state, so CCA "covered it up"), and very few of us were ever promoted. We were also forced to work very long hours, in some cases three shifts in a row. We were never allowed to take any lunch breaks, even between shifts. Vacation and overtime pay was frequently left out of our checks, and when it was brought to the attention of HR, there were plenty of excuses on why they didn't have to pay it.
There were several times that staff members were attacked and injured by inmates, and the said employees were supposedly told to change their stories around, to say that they were injured in accidents rather than attacked.
All in all, it was one of the most frustrating periods of my life. I worked for CCA for close to a year and a half. I would never recommend that anyone work for this company. In my opinion, CCA should be investigated for labor violations and forced to compensate all employees that were wronged by the company.’
Above personal testimony from RipoffReport.com
The CCA website has a slightly different way of describing their business model. They write, ‘CCA benefits America by protecting public safety, employing the best people in solid careers, rehabilitating inmates, giving back to communities, and bringing innovative security to government corrections – all while consistently saving hardworking taxpayers’ dollars.’
With 2.3 million Americans currently in prison for one reason or another and with CCA only profiting off of 75,000 of them, it’s safe to say Corrections Corporation of America may be a wise investment. And with the corporation and its Wall Street investors throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at bankrupt states and local governments to buy into their strategy, there may be no stopping the company, or their 90 percent capacity mandate.