National Pulse

Trump administration reverses federal plans to phase out use of private prison facilities

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Follow the Money

The profit motive also creates systemic consequences, reformers argue. Friedmann says the existence of the industry has slowed justice reform on issues such as early release or reduced sentences. “Policymakers did not have to make those difficult and politically unpalatable decisions,” he says. These days, he adds, the major private-prison contractors use their financial power to perpetuate themselves.

The two largest prison companies, the Geo Group and CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America), spent about $1 million lobbying Congress in 2016, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. They targeted appropriations bills, as well as bills about private prisons themselves.

They also donate. In addition to supporting congressional and local candidates, CoreCivic and the Geo Group gave $250,000 each to Trump’s inaugural festivities, data from the center shows. It also shows that Geo Group organizations (not counting individual employees) gave at least another $450,000 to Trump-affiliated organizations.

A CoreCivic spokesman says that the company avoids taking official positions on legislation that determines the duration or basis of imprisonment, and that it mainly lobbies for full funding of its contracts and “educating lawmakers about the solutions we offer.” He says the inaugural contribution was in line with the contributions it made to both Obama inaugurations.

A spokesman for the Geo Group, Pablo Paez, says the company has never taken a position on criminal justice, sentencing or immigration enforcement priorities. “Our political activities focus entirely on promoting the use of public-private partnerships ... and our contributions should not be construed as an endorsement of all policies or positions adopted by any individual candidate,” Paez says.

Eisen says this political work permits the companies to avoid transparency. One defeated bill, which CoreCivic lobbied against last year, would have subjected the industry to the Freedom of Information Act. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, has introduced the Private Prison Information Act in Congress seven times but has never succeeded.

This has consequences down the line. Horn says when he was running public prisons, he got calls from elected officials encouraging him to privatize certain functions or back off from enforcing a contract.

Nonetheless, Horn sees a place for private prisons, particularly for immigration detention, where the need fluctuates. He thinks the solution is writing stronger contracts with prison companies. Currently, he says, private prison companies save more money by understaffing than they pay in penalties under their contracts.

“We know what private vendors are going to try and do,” he says, “but if we don’t hold them accountable, we don’t write a contract that’s tough to violate, that’s enforceable and then actually enforce it, shame on us.”


This article appeared in the September 2017 issue of the ABA Journal with the headline “Prison Pays: Trump Administration reverses federal plans to phase out use of private facilities."

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