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Corporations Are Cashing in on California's Prison Overcrowding Crisis

California is being forced by the courts to move inmates out of its overcrowded prison system, which is just another opportunity for the people who make money from incarceration to cash in.
Κείμενο Ray Downs

San Quentin, one of the many California state prisons the government has been forced to move inmates out of. Photo via Flickr user telmo32

For years, California’s massive, out-of-control inmate population has been a cash cow for the prison industry. Now, with the state being forced by the courts to reduce the number of men and women it’s keeping in boxes, the prison profiteers—including both corporations and prison-guard unions—are trying to squeeze every cent they can out of the government.


The number of prisoners in California peaked in 2006 at 163,000, which was far too many for the system’s 33 detention centers to handle—inmates were sleeping on bunk beds in gyms converted into improvised dorms. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that these conditions constituted cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the state to reduce the prison population to 110,000.

Officials have been trying to get that number down by shipping inmates to county jails and out-of-state facilities, as well as letting a few go out on parole. But in late September, the state still had nearly 10,000 more bodies in prison than the courts want. Governor Jerry Brown has been frantically negotiating with judges to give him more time to comply with their order; simultaneously, he's been desperately seeking a way to reduce the prison population without letting anyone go free. Most recently, he cut a deal to pay private prison contractor the GEO Group $150 million over five years to take 1,400 inmates off the state’s hands.

That might sound like a lot of money, buy that contract is peanuts compared with the $215 million California gave to Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s other major private-prison operator, in 2012 alone. That in turn is dwarfed by the nearly $8 billion a year the state spends on its gargantuan incarceration system. A multibillion-dollar industry like that naturally has lobbyists, and one of California’s prison-industrial complex’s biggest boosters is the 30,000-member California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), a big-time player in state politics that has pushed for tougher laws and longer sentences for criminals over the past 30 years.


Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA, gave a few examples of how the CCPOA has spent big money to keep people in cages in a blog post from 2007:

“[CCPOA] gave over $100,000 to California’s Three Strikes initiative, Proposition 184 in 1994, making it the [campaign’s] second-largest contributor. It gave at least $75,000 to the opponents of Proposition 36, the 2000 initiative that replaced incarceration with substance abuse treatment for certain nonviolent offenders. From 1998 to 2000 it gave over $120,000 to crime victims’ groups, who present a more sympathetic face to the public in their pro-incarceration advocacy. It spent over $1 million to help defeat Proposition 66, the 2004 initiative that would have limited the crimes that triggered a life sentence under the Three Strikes law. And in 2005, it killed Gov. Schwarzenegger’s plan to reduce the prison population by as much as 20,000, mainly through a program that diverted parole violators into rehabilitation efforts: drug programs, halfway houses and home detention.”

Like other unions, the CCPOA also works on behalf of its members for better pay and improved working conditions. But prison guards are in a unique position: their jobs depend on prisons being open for business. As Joan Petersilia, a professor at Stanford Law, told the League of Ordinary Gentlemen blog, it's really just simple economics:

“More prisoners lead to more prisons; more prisons require more guards; more guards means more dues-paying members and fund-raising capability; and fundraising, of course, translates into political influence.”


An example of how this influence is wielded comes from California's 2010 gubernatorial race, during which candidates had to address intense debates over the prison overcrowding problem as well as the economic crisis gripping the state. Brown, the eventual winner, campaigned on promises to maintain benefits for prison guards and increase the state's inmate capacity rather than releasing prisoners, meaning more guards would keep their jobs. The CCPOA gave him $196,770 over the course of the campaign.

Meg Whitman, his Republican opponent, was by no means arguing for progressive prison reform, but she wanted to address the state's prison overcrowding problem by shipping inmates out of state and then slowly privatizing the prison system, which would cut union guard jobs dramatically. She also took heat for proposing cuts to public employee pension plans, which included those of guards. As a result, the CCPOA spent more than $1.5 million against Whitman, bankrolling ads that portrayed the former eBay CEO as a greedy, silver-spoon-fed outsourcer.

Simultaneously, the GEO Group and CCA have won several lucrative contracts while donating heavily to state politicians.

In 2006, then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had to respond to allegations he was giving the private-prison company special treatment because they wrote him a $22,300 check. One week after that news came out, Schwarzenegger returned the money, but kept the approximately $68,000 GEO donated to his various political action committees over the past three years—including $10,000 that was donated just before the company won a $20 million contract in 2005.


Schwarzenegger’s time in office was good for CCA as well. From 2006 to 2008, the company received contracts to house about 8,000 inmates in out-of-state facilities. Those deals, worth more than $200 million annually, were renewed this summer—in fact, California wants CCA to take on even more inmates, even though Kentucky didn’t renew a contract with the company and Idaho took them to court over staffing issues.

How did the company get so lucky? After winning the California prison system as a client, CCA got involved in state politics. In 2008, it made 67 different donations totalling $174,000 to a bipartisan variety of candidates and causes. The next year, the company gave $100,000 to Schwarzenegger's Budget Reform Now PAC, and in 2010 it handed out $178,200 to California-based campaigns.

As usual, campaign contributions know no partisan bounds. Though CCA’s donations leaned Republican for several years, when Democrats took control of the state's major offices in 2010, the company changed loyalties. In 2012, when CCA made donations to 54 politicians in California, 37 of them were Democrats.

That was money well spent—in September Brown announced a plan that would send inmates to privately owned cells both in California and elsewhere, a scheme that would be worth hundreds of millions in revenue to CCA and GEO. Parts of that deal are presumably on hold, however, as federal judges recently refused to let California place more inmates out of state as a condition of giving Brown more time to deal with the overcrowding problem.


All this shuffling of bodies, prison reform advocates argue, would be unnecessary if elected officials decided to simply free more inmates who don’t pose a threat to anybody.

“There are lots of prisoners in the state prison system who are elderly and medically infirm who do not pose any significant risk to public safety who could be released,” said Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, a California organization that has sued the state on prisoners' behalf for inhumane conditions. “There are also inmates who were sentenced as juveniles who should be considered [for release] because they've matured and don't pose a risk, but the state won't let them out.”

California as a whole thankfully seems to be turning against the harsh statutes that led to the expansion of prisons in the first place. In 2012, voters modified the state's three strikes law to soften punishments for offenders whose third "strike" is a nonviolent offense. More “soft on crime” proposals are being debated, such as placing inmates in rehab rather than prisons and fully legalizing marijuana.

Those kinds of policies will have a tough time becoming law, however—CCPOA donated $1 million to the 2008 campaign against Proposition 5, which would have reduced the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders. Even in a state famous for putting too many people in prison, the path to freeing just a few thousand of them is long, arduous, and blocked by corporate money.


Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayDowns

More on prisons:

Just Close Down California's Prisons Already

Who's Getting Rich Off the Prison-Industrial Complex?

Starve Yourself Free