With the rise of privately-owned prisons, incarceration has become big business in America. The private prison industry has quietly boomed over the last few years, with the federal private prison population more than doubling in the decade from 2000 to 2010. Today, the private prison population is more than 130,000, and private prisons hold some 17% of federal and 7% of state inmates . All of these bodies represent profit to the companies like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group that own and operate these facilities; the two corporations, which have an essential duopoly on the industry, pocketed more than $3.3 billion in revenue last year.
The private prison industry, of course, stands to lose from any change in policy – no matter how intelligent and humane – that would reduce the nation’s prison population. CCA and GEO have thus lobbied furiously against reductions in mandatory minimum sentencing laws and any form of drug legalization or decriminalization. As the nation continues flushing dollars down the toilet and ruining lives and communities with its failed war on drugs, Big Prison shares a huge burden of blame for the devastating toll. Similarly, the corporations have lobbied furiously in favor of harsh immigration rules like Arizona’s controversial anti-immigration law. It is highly disturbing that almost half of the nation’s immigrant detainees are now in the hands of private corporations for whom they represent no more than increased revenue for elite shareholders.
However, in what would seem to be a major issue for the industry, America’s rates of crime and illegal immigration have actually decreased significantly in recent years. The industry’s answer? Arrest more people anyway. In order to maintain revenue, privately own prison companies usually include a clause in their contracts mandating that occupancy levels remain at 90% or higher. CCA, GEO, and the politicians who back them are thus perpetuating the devastating effects of having so many Americans behind bars even as the issue would naturally be on the mend. Prison ruins lives, and yet these overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately minority lives are only collateral damage in the eyes of the committed corporatists at CCA and GEO.
With so much money being made on the backs of inmates and in an age when money is speech and campaign donations are unfettered, the prison industry has sought, just like any other big industry, to ensure the success of its interests by buying off politicians. CCA and GEO have spent an astounding $35 million on lobbying and campaign contributions in the previous decades, usually towards destructive ends. Even as policies like mandatory minimums, anti-immigration laws, and the drug war have repeatedly been shown to be racist wastes of money with no benefit on public safety, politicians have continued to support them at the behest of the prison lobbyists who pull their strings. And there has been no greater beneficiary of Big Prison lobbying – and by extension no greater culprit in the ruining of American lives through incarceration and drug policy – than Florida senator and recently-announced Presidential candidate Marco Rubio.
Florida, not coincidentally a national leader in prison privatization, has benefited from tremendous largesse from the private prison industry, with the Florida Republican Party having received more than $2.5 million from GEO and CCA, which are among its top donors. Rubio himself has received more than $40,000 directly and $35,000 via his PAC from GEO Group over the course of his career, stretching back to his time as Chairman of the Florida House of Representatives. While in that position, Rubio hired a former GEO trustee as his economic advisor and then promptly ensured that GEO was granted a $110 million contract to build the state’s largest private prison facility, Blackwater Creek Correctional Facility. A federal inquiry into the deal revealed tens of thousands in kickbacks to Florida lawmakers and resulted in the indictment of Florida House speaker Ray Sansom.
Then, as a United States senator, Rubio pushed heavily for Gov. Rick Scott’s plan to turn over 27 state prisons to GEO. Then, in 2011, the Florida Victory Committee, Rubio’s Florida PAC, received some $114,000 from GEO and its sub-contractors just as the group was launching a major lobbying campaign against immigration reform, an issue on which Rubio has largely sided with his puppet masters despite his best attempts to make it seem otherwise. Moreover, the lobbying firm of Rubio chief of staff and PAC leader Cesar Conda has pocketed more than $610,000 from GEO even as the group donated almost $20,000 directly to Rubio’s PAC last year
America has apparently so totally given itself over to corporations that even such delicate and imperative governmental duties as incarceration are now being handed over to private corporations with only profit as an incentive. While prisons should be operated with rehabilitation rather than punishment for punishment’s sake in mind, this has been made impossible by a situation in which every American behind bars and every year served represent dollars in the coffers of CCA and GEO. Even as these corporations have publicly acknowledged their incentive to keep as many people in prison for as much time as possible, no matter the costs both economic and human that are wreaked, their control of prominent politicians has remained relatively un-scrutinized. A man like Marco Rubio who has shelved his obligation to serve the American people for the benefit of corporate backers who profit from the destruction of American lives should be relieved of office. Instead, in the disgrace that is modern American politics, he is a legitimate contender for President.
Colin Taylor is the editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.