The language of corporate self-praise, would you might think, have little to tell us. But consider these word changes in the self-descriptions of GEO, America’s second-biggest proprietor of privately-run prisons. In 2010, GEO said its job was tracking “offenders.” Four years later it was supervising “individuals,” and if that didn’t seem innocuous enough, by 2019 the inmates no longer known as “offenders” had become “individuals under community supervision.” Sounds like GEO is overseeing parks and recreation playgrounds, not jails, prisons and detention centers. But there is a real message in those word changes — public support for mass incarceration is waning.
When Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs in the 1980s, and Bill Clinton and then-Senator Joe Biden’s crime bills of the 1990s helped make America the “lock ‘em up” capitol of the world, the politicians created a big problem: there weren’t enough spaces to hold all the people being arrested, convicted and handed long, often mandatory, sentences.
The politicians’ bipartisan solution — monetize the problem, make incarceration so profitable it would attract private-sector prison managers. This, in turn, the theory went, would create a free market in which the prison privateers would compete to lower costs and improve services.
It didn’t happen. Today just three companies, CoreCivic (which once more honestly called itself the Corrections Corporation of America), GEO — the “community supervision” company and MTC, the self-titled Management and Training Corporation — made to sound like they counsel rug-rats on “going potty,” have cornered the state, federal and local corrections markets.
Most studies not funded by the three companies have concluded that their private prisons are more violent, more dangerous for inmates and staff, and offer fewer and lesser services to the folks they’ve locked up than publicly-run facilities. And even though the studies noted, private prisons spend less on staff salaries and staff training, and often, on the number of staffers running their facilities, they may not cost less for the counties, states and federal agencies that pay them. Which explains the popularity of one of President Joe Biden’s first executive orders, which was headlined as “directing the Department of Justice to end its contracts with privately run prisons.” Or as Susan Rice, the president’s domestic policy adviser, put it, stopping private prison companies from “profiteering” from federal prisoners. To which three words need to be added, “not so fast.”
The Federal Bureau of Prisons won’t be ending its private prison contracts until the contracts end. The Biden Justice Department will not “renew any contracts with private prisons,” but for now, for years, “profiteering” in the federal prison system will be permitted.
For CoreCivic, those Bureau of Prisons contracts account for two percent of corporate profits. More than 40 percent comes from CoreCivic’s private lockups contracted with the Department of Homeland Security and its subdivision, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE. They are not covered by President Biden’s order. They were protected by contracts handed out by the Trump Administration, for whom profiteering on the backs of poor and marginalized people is a way of life.
Katherine Hawkins is a Senior Legal Analyst, focusing on national security, immigration and human rights. She was previously a policy counsel and investigator for the Constitution Project, and a national security fellow for Open the Government. Katherine is one of the leading experts on the United States government’s use of torture after September 11, and has published extensively on the subject. She received a B.A. in political science from Yale University, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.