2000 Nov Western States Center The Prison Payoff
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The Prison Payoff: The Role of Politics and Private Prisons in the Incarceration Boom

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The U.S. is currently engaged in the largest prison build-up in recorded history. Since 1980 we have more than quadrupled our prison population. Nearly one in every 150 Americans is incarcerated today, at an annual cost of $40 billion. During the same time period, crime rates have remained steady or decreased.

If crime is not on the rise, why are incarceration rates skyrocketing? It is well documented that the media sensationalize crime and the public’s fear of crime (which is out of proportion with actual victimization rates). This propensity feeds and is fed by political opportunism that exploits the public’s fear for the sake of political gain. Ever since the infamous Willie Horton ads were aired to discredit Democratic Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988, politicians from both major parties have had a morbid fear of appearing soft on crime.

But beyond the fears fanned by the media and self-interested politicians, what else is driving the U.S. incarceration boom?

It is our conclusion that a major factor in the current incarceration boom is the influence of private prison corporations with vested financial interests in increasing rates of imprisonment. Between 1987 and 1996, the number of inmates in private prisons soared more than 2000 percent, jumping from 3,122 to 78,000. By December, 1999, private prison beds in the U.S. numbered over 130,000.

This report documents two of the primary methods used by private prison corporations to wield influence: political campaign contributions and ideologically-loaded model legislation shaped by the same private interests who stand to profit from it.

We make no claims of a conspiracy. The reactionary criminal justice policies proposed and passed throughout the country in the 1990s were decidedly non-partisan; both Republicans and Democrats positioned themselves as “tougher than the rest” on matters of crime and punishment. And much of the harsh legislation of the last two decades has been supported by groups, like powerful corrections labor unions, who otherwise oppose prison privatization.

Nonetheless, private prison companies have deeply insinuated themselves into the political process. This report illustrates the convergence of factors during the last two decades that have contributed to their rising influence:

  • The ascendancy of conservative politics, which favors privatization of many public responsibilities, including criminal justice;
  • The increasingly common practice of exploiting public fears about crime to gain or maintain political power;
  • The concerted efforts of corporate-backed think tanks like the American Legislative Exchange Council to develop and disseminate pro-privatization legislative models;
  • The dependency of elected officials on big-money contributors for their ongoing political careers; and
  • The opportunity for profits to be made off of the criminal justice industry.

This report seeks to provide the information, analysis and resources to help reverse these trends.