The problems with privatized prisons have come to public attention largely due to the investigative journalism of The Nation and Mother Jones. Their reporting underscores the importance and challenges of investigative journalism. It has become relatively routine for targets of investigative journalism to sue (or at least threaten to sue) the journalists and their publishers. Both corporate and government entities have built an ever stronger set of legal protections including employee non-disclosure agreements and other employer protection laws and legal precedents. The mainstream, corporate media have largely abandoned investigative journalism at least in part due to the threat of litigation and because news and reporting budgets have been slashed to increase profits.

When Mother Jones published its report based on a guard’s experiences at a private prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA, see overview and link below), it received a threatening letter from a law firm on behalf of CCA. It was the law firm that had represented a billionaire and large political campaign donor who had spent 3 years suing Mother Jones over its reporting of his anti-LGBT activities. Although the billionaire lost his case, the legal costs Mother Jones incurred in defending itself were a very serious financial burden. Furthermore, he pledged $1 million to support others who might want to sue Mother Jones over its reporting. [1] Needless to say, this type of aggressive behavior by the subjects of investigative reporting puts a chill on this valuable kind of journalism.

The Nation’s investigative reporting was based on reviewing a large number of documents from the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in the US Department of Justice. The documents were obtained only after a lengthy and costly process using the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to these public records.

The records showed that the Bureau of Prisons’ monitors had documented, between January 2007 and June 2015, the deaths of 34 inmates who were provided substandard medical care in the BOP’s private prisons. Fourteen of these deaths occurred in prisons run by the Corrections Corporation of America, while fifteen were in prisons operated by the GEO Group. These two corporations are the largest operators of for-profit prisons. [2]

Despite this and other documentation of serious problems at the for-profit prisons, top BOP officials repeatedly failed to enforce the remediation of dangerous deficiencies and routinely extended contracts for the prisons. This was due, at least in part, to a cozy relationship between BOP leadership and the private-prison operators because of the revolving door of personnel between the BOP and the private providers. In 2011, for example, Harley Lappin, who had served as the Director of the BOP for eight years, left to join CCA as executive vice president. There he earned more than $1.6 million in one year; roughly 10 times his salary at BOP. Two previous BOP Directors, J. Michael Quinlan and Norman Carlson, had gone to work for CCA and the GEO Group, respectively. Five BOP employees recalled the former BOP Directors participating in meetings between the BOP and the contractor for whom they worked. The BOP employees felt this influenced decisions that were made and made taking disciplinary action against the contractors difficult.

Mother Jones magazine’s investigative reporting was done by Shane Bauer, a reporter who spent 4 months as a guard at one of CCA’s private prisons in Louisiana. [3] He found that cost cutting was a focus of both the state and CCA. Employee costs made up 59% of CCA’s operating expenses and therefore were a key target for cost-cutting. Starting guards at Bauer’s CCA facility made only $9 per hour while those at public prisons in the state made $12.50. To further save money and increase profits, the CCA facility was typically under-staffed. The facility’s guard towers were unmanned on a regular basis and staffing inside the facility was typically 10% – 20% below standard. Lockdowns, where prisoners can’t leave their wing of the prison, were supposed to be punishments for major disturbances, but they also occurred over holidays and other times when there simply weren’t enough guards to run the prison. Security checks on prisoners were logged as being done even when they weren’t because of understaffing. However, when the state’s Department of Correction was coming for an inspection, guards were required to work overtime so the facility was fully staffed.

As a result of under-staffing and perhaps under-training (another cost-cutting strategy), the use of force or chemical agents, typically pepper spray, occurred more often at the CCA prison than at comparable facilities: twice as often for force and 7 times as often for chemical agents. With 1,500 inmates, 546 sexual offenses were reported at Bauer’s prison in 2014, 69% higher than at a comparable government-run facility. Between 2010 and 2015, CCA was sued more than 1,000 times nationwide, with approximately 3% of the cases involving a death, 6% sexual harassment or assault, 10% physical violence, 15% injuries, 15% medical care issues, and 16% prison conditions and treatment.

Louisiana’s efforts to cut costs and use contractors to run cheap prisons was reflected in the $34 per inmate per day that it paid CCA, while funding for state-run prisons was about $52. In addition, the inflation-adjusted cost per prisoner at the CCA facility Bauer worked at had dropped by 20% between the late 1990s and 2014.

CCA has an incentive to keep prisoners in its prisons in order to maximize revenue. An inmate can be charged with an infraction of the rules and lose credit for good behavior. This can mean that an inmate stays in prison an extra 30 days and that CCA gets paid an additional $1,000.

In Louisiana, the state also had an incentive to keep the prison full because CCA’s contract with the state required that CCA get paid for a minimum of 96% of full occupancy. Occupancy guarantees are common in private prison contracts and are one aspect of privatization that leads to perverse incentives for the state. The state’s incentive to keep the prison full may mean that prisoners who could be released are kept in prison or that the criminal justice system is pressured to arrest and sentence enough people to ensure that the prison is full.

CCA has been very active politically through lobbying and campaign contributions. Since 1998, CCA has spent $23 million on lobbying the federal government. Since 1990, it and its employees have contributed more than $6 million to candidates and other political activity. It has lobbied for high levels of incarceration. It co-chaired the criminal justice task force of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate and conservative think tank that drafts and promotes state-level legislation. Among the pieces of legislation it has promoted are mandatory sentencing laws, punitive immigration reform, and truth-in-sentencing laws, all of which helped fuel the growing prison population of the 1990s.

CCA and other for-profit prison corporations aggressively lobbied Congress in 2009 for a minimum number of undocumented immigrants to be in private detention centers. They succeeded; US taxpayers are required by law to pay for a daily minimum of 34,000 beds in private detention centers. [4] These corporations have also lobbied against bills in Congress that would require private prisons to be subject to public information laws, such as the Freedom of Information Act. Such bills have been introduced at least 8 times in Congress, but have failed to pass each time.

These are examples of the problems and issues with private prisons, and with privatization in general. The problems with the private prisons were severe and intractable enough that the BOP concluded that it had to terminate its use of them. The BOP’s experiences and decision to end privatization should be kept in mind as other privatization efforts are reviewed or proposed.

[1]       Jeffery, C., July/August 2016, “Why we sent a reporter to work as a private prison guard,” Mother Jones (

[2]       Wessler, S.F., 6/15/16, “Federal officials ignored years of internal warnings about deaths at private prisons,” The Nation (

[3]       Bauer, S., July / August 2016, “My four months as a private prison guard,” Mother Jones (

[4]       Editorial, 8/27/16, “Dump private prisons – all of them,” The Boston Globe


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