The Private Prison Project
By joining systemwide primary sources with local firsthand accounts, MuckRock will tell the story of how commoditized public security has gotten and kept its hold on America. Your contribution will make possible:
Request fees: Over the past year, we’ve spent hundreds of dollars on fees for primary documents from local, state, and federal agencies, and we need about $1,000 more.
In-person investigation: We’ve already picked out and have researched a perfect case study for how private prisons, offered as lifelines to nearly bankrupt towns, end up controlling the local economy and politicians desperate to keep them happy, while offering few of the promised benefits. To send Beryl there for a week will cost another $1,000.
Reporting: With more records, more interviews, more analysis, and more access for everyone interested in what for-profit prisons mean for policy and the public, we’ll be producing 12 new pieces over the next six months to help contextualize the human effects of the prison profit motive. Approximately $1,200 of the budget will go towards funding the time to work on these stories.
Interactive elements: Let us lay it out. Maps will show who contracts for what where. Timelines will help visualize the growth of the industry. Graphics will help illustrate the revolving door between private and public sectors and the corporate stock prices. The project will organize all of these materials, so that researchers, legislators, journalists, activists, and individuals can more easily find the information they need. Approximately $800 will go towards building these interactive elements.
If we raise more than our target goal, we’ll be able to expand the project, paying more request fees, spending more time reporting, an adding art and photography to illustrate the reporting.
Backed by Kevin Pierce, carolina guerrero, Annette Heist, Nicholas Barry, and 93 others.
- Kevin Pierce
- carolina guerrero
- Annette Heist
- Nicholas Barry
- James Youll
- Brooke Ganz
- Lope Gutierrez-Ruiz
- Phil Mocek
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- Ryan Boren
- Erik Ashby
- Michael Morisy
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- 75 anonymous backers
$4,025.00 raised out of $4,000.00.
This crowdfund has ended.
The private correctional industry as we now see it grew out of eighties privatization fervor. Like so many corporate promises, the prospect of a quick fix has gotten many a government “partner” to sign on.
In response to overcrowded state prisons, private operators promise to build up quickly, hire local people at below-government rates and benefits, and spend less to hold more people.
And the host cities are often eager: They’re often towns with decimated industry and little hope of that changing. So build a prison. Garner the favor of a corporate sponsor, create jobs, and a healthy economy. It’s an appealing offer. And it’s legal.
- Corrections Corporation - Red
- GEO Group - Blue
- Management and Training Corporation - Green
The result is a rash of towns across America where a huge chunk of the population is incarcerated and where the city’s financial well-being relies on the continuance of tough-on-crime legislation and enforcement, no matter the human or economic cost.
- The Michigan legislature, led by a small town representative, that voted to allow the import of maximum security inmates from Vermont.
- The “deeply saddened and frustrated” Youngstown, Ohio mayor who wrote to the Director of Bureau of Prison, bemoaning the federal decision to move their inmates elsewhere in the wake of employee abuse while lauding CCA’s $180 million economic impact
- New Mexico town that cobbled together a prison population from a handful of agencies or the one in Arizona that pieced together an economy from a handful of prisons
All are symptoms of failing local economies looking for a “responsive corporate citizen” to give them a chance.
The profit motive is firmly entrenched in our criminal justice system. We’ve a long history of using inmate labor and fees to finance the incarceration apparatus and, consequently, incentivize it. Extracting that element from the system will be difficult, to say the least, particularly with players batting for multiple teams–government, companies, and “independent” regulatory bodies.
The Big Three
The giants of the for-profit prison system — Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), GEO Group, Management and Training Corporation (MTC) — pour millions into lobbying for legislation and conditions amenable to the perpetuation of incarceration; in return, they enjoy billions in profits and the cushion cash gives against financial penalties for any indiscretions that happen to be caught. CCA itself dismissed the impact of disciplinary fines, as “the total for such fines comprises approximately .19% of CCA’s contract receipts.” Coupled with the codependent attitude of the towns themselves, these companies are able to operate with a clear advantage. Then, the policies and contracts that have been borne of these liaisons bring themselves to bear upon those in the worst position to do anything about it.
Behind the Bars
Our eyes on the inside are the incarcerated themselves, but from the outset, their complaints have been virtually inaccessible. Prisoners, public and private, are subjected to a strict series of procedural complaint requirements; individual grievance records are kept internally, meaning that to revisit them would require sometimes thousands of dollars for search time alone. Functionally, the private operators have often been given full responsibility over grievance resolution.
Employees, too, face the same risks faced as all correctional officers, yet they lack many of the same methods of relief. The absence of government benefits contributes to much of the cost-savings that private facilities actually provide, and their employees must contend with the added pressure of reporting negative incidents in the face of shareholder scrutiny.
We know that public jail and prison operators get kickbacks on commissary, phone calls, and the sale of inmate labor. How much private operators make on such side revenue remains a mystery.
We’re barely allowed to know how much they’re paying to hold people they believe are in the country illegally. But we do know that corporations have put big bucks into encouraging their detainment.
Records that would otherwise be public are withheld from disclosure. But despite that, it’s become clear that the promise of one low price has come with all sorts of caveats. Look at Lake Erie, where the switch to privatization has meant more aid from local services. Or Torrance County, where added medical expenses have cost the town thousands more than it had anticipated. Or any of the multiple towns left holding defaulted bonds after their prison promises just didn’t pan out. By withholding their records, it’s nearly impossible to get a clear picture of just how accurate their sales pitches actually are.
Refuse To Know Nothing
Your support will help tell the story of the lives behind the contracts, amplifying the unheard voices on both sides of these agreements. By showing the concrete implications for towns that host private prisons, and the near impossibility of escape from within this system, we’ll show how widespread the practical challenges are across this debate.
Image via Pixabay
A new year and a new president may mean better business than usual for private prisons. As we tackle another segment of the Private Prison Project, join us in whatever way you can to fight for greater transparency in our criminal justice system.
He gave his name to what would become the biggest private detention company in the world. But he got his start over sixty years ago here at home in Hoover’s FBI. Meet George Wackenhut.
Just three months ago, private prisons were feeling the sting of a Justice Department report that became ammunition for a phase-out. But the renewed feeling of a Reagan-era, privatization redux is good news for a sector now poised for a new uncertain reign of law and order.
Lots of lip service has been given to ending private prisons, but with state and immigration contracts keeping hundreds of for-profit prisons still operating, many would remain in business even without help from the federal government.
For over two years, dozens of articles, and thousands of public records requests, Beryl Lipton’s Private Prison Project has given much needed scrutiny to the incarceration industry. In anticipation of a talk Beryl will be giving on Friday, we interviewed her regarding her motivation for starting the project, her methodology for getting records released, and what she’s learned along the way.
The latest report from the BOP Inspector General calls for closer oversight of contract prisons, highlighting an important shared trait with their public counterparts: the problems they face. From whole cloth outsourcing to individual ceiling tiles, the private sector is willing to help.
For decades, the he-said, she-said has worked in the favor of the private prison operator. They said that they’d be cheaper. They said that they would be more efficient. They said that recidivism would go down. And yet, despite little evidence that any of that is true, their stocks go up.
With the summer heat approaching, we look at the process inmates go through for relief before resorting to rioting - the ways you can question operations near you.
With few opportunities to voice their experiences, inmates offer their own insights into prison culture through their complaints. But between record-keeping and paperwork control, access makes them a hard resource to look at until its too late.
With combined revenues of over $3 billion dollars, it’s easy enough to point to GEO Group and CCA as fueling the private incarceration industry. But between their prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers, youth residential centers, and community corrections facilities, there are now 151 communities complicit across the country, where local cooperation has been necessary to the expansion of private prisons.
The expansion of private - and public - prisons across the U.S. helps illustrate the tangle created when social and economic needs come into conflict.
In the fourth and final part of MuckRock’s introduction to private prison contracts, we consider the failures of standard safeguards and the importance of public vigilance in a growing industry.
In part 3 of MuckRock’s look at private prison contracts, we point out the add-ons and hidden costs that keep companies comfortably within government standards.
What is the government looking for when it decides it wants a private prison? In part 2 of our look at private prison contracts, we take a step back to the Request for Proposal, the government’s opening invitation for bidders to throw in their offers.
Private prisons operate in dozens of towns and cities across America - today, we kick off a four-part series looking at the lucrative government contracts designed to keep them there.
If you’re interested in a public company, their Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings are an easy, obvious place to look for information. That said, SEC filings can be pretty drab, and even those of private prison companies CCA and GEO Group aren’t so different on the surface - but inside this unappetizing letter-number salad, as much can be made of what’s going on behind our national system as can be made of what’s on the forms.
The word cloud of prison privatization has two standouts: CCA and GEO. They stand on the stock exchange, some believe as a demonstration of nefarious American ties between justice and capitalism. But ticker symbols and federal filing one-liners are just formal summations of one side of the pipeline. The word cloud shows more dimly the individuals, whole communities, and states that are tethered to them.
In the current system, there is nothing necessarily inherently illegal about the use of private prisons. So how are they even legal? In part, because - despite private-public turnover and speedily passed laws and court interpretations - the American people didn’t make a strong case. And future beneficiaries did.
By BOP standards, private prisons are legally allowable. By their standards too, those setting policy for the public benefit are free to reap private benefits. Private prison operators, at least officially, won’t wear out their trial welcome until they’re officially proven failures. But with renewed scrutiny of privatized corrections coming to Congress, we’re forced to wonder: how is this even legal in the first place?
Thirty years ago, when privatized prisons were first offered as a viable alternative to the failures of the public sector, concerns - ethical, financial, and practical - were raised regarding how the incarceration industry would be implemented. Now, three decades into this “experiment,” the for-profits are here to stay, and those concerns could not have been more prescient.
A particularly unsettling exchange with a private prison’s legal team leads Beryl Lipton to reflect on her investigation so far, and what next year will bring.
Millions of people and billions of dollars have passed through the detainee-deportation machine, which has been an active aspect of U.S. immigration policy for over a century. But while immigration reform will be hotly debated in the public sphere through the next federal election year, the infrastructure serving the system is largely private.
California City, like the prison to match, was a town built on speculation. In the second half of this series, we look at how Corrections Corporation played the long game in CA and seems to be winning.
In this two part series, we look at how one community invited in private prison giant Corrections Corp - and why they can’t get them to leave.
The details of the American prison system typically are, and have been, matters of public record - if one only knows how to ask. Even for-profit prisons, whose status as corporations make them notoriously exempt from public records laws, can’t hide everything they’ve got.
The “Justice is Not For Sale” Act was introduced into Congress yesterday, calling for the elimination of privately-run prison contracts at all levels of government. The system, however, is a knot of agreements and in many cases, the ones left holding the loose ends will be the rural towns and communities in which these private facilities have set up shop.
Winn Correctional Center opened its doors 25 years ago as the first privately-run medium security prison in America. And, soon, its life cycle as one of the country’s oldest for-profit facilities will come to an end, when the handoff from Corrections Corporation of America to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections is completed. For the first time in the facility’s history, a new ability to scrutinize its inner workings will exist.
A crime is committed in a state. The suspect’s tried, convicted, and sentenced there, and there’s a general expectation that then the punishment will play out close to home — unless it happens that one lives in a state like Vermont, with a correctional system so overcrowded that some prisoners must be shipped away to a facility somewhere else.
MuckRock launched the Private Prison Project exactly a year ago. It was the start of a look at the big players who stand the most to gain from America’s obsession with calling people problems and then locking those problems away. Beryl Lipton reflects on the hard-fought victories we’ve had so far, and what the future holds.
Three private prison corporations own the field of for-profit corrections. Are they running their game in your state? If you live in the South, the answer is yes.
In September, MuckRock requested Special Incident Reports regarding Lake Erie Correctional Institution, operated by private prison giant Corrections Corporation of America. What we received were fascinating snapshots of days rife with makeshift weapons, contraband cell phones, and drug use ranging from marijuana to heroin
Winn Correctional Center, a Corrections Corporation of America facility in Louisiana, holds the dubious distinction of being the first privately-operated medium-security prison in the United States. It houses about 1,500 prisoners, which, coincidentally, is also about as many grievances it gets each year.
Public Advocate De Blasio blasted private prisons for their lack of transparency. Now what will Mayor De Blasio do about the one operating across the street from JFK?
When CCA first opened a prison in Estancia, home of the last hanging in New Mexico, the Detention Facility was responsibly for just under 300 offenders. Now it clocks in at over 900 inmates, over half the town’s population.
As part of MuckRock’s ongoing Private Prisons project, Freedom of Information Act requests have been submitted to federal agencies for every one of their private facilities. Track them via our interactive map, and if you follow them from their request page, you’ll be updated when as documents come in.
Do private prisons “cherry pick” inmates, leaving state Corrections departments saddled with offenders in need of more expensive care? While it’s not quite selecting from a line up, they do set the guidelines for who’s in or out.
MuckRock’s September request for complaints made to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) against Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) has so far yielded only four complete responses from OSHA’s ten regional offices. None of them mention interpersonal inmate issues but nonetheless they offer glimpses into what goes on within prison walls.
“Public-private partnerships” - established with local, state, and federal agencies - provide groups like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) the financial incentives that contribute to mass incarceration in the United States. MuckRock has submitted requests for nearly every contract currently maintained between a government agency and CCA, and plotted them by facility on an interactive map.
Months in, The Private Prison Project has uncovered thousands of docs related to the incarceration industry
This summer, MuckRock announced that it was beginning a longterm FOIA investigation into the shadowy space between the private prison industry and its government “partners,” who bankroll almost the entirety of this growing enterprise. After months of digging, the surface has barely been scratched.
When Corrections Corporation of America bought the Lake Erie Correctional Institution from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction in September 2011, Lake Erie became the first state prison to be sold to a private company. Just that August, the State’s Correctional Institution Inspection Committee had given the facility a positive review during its unannounced visit. By the next inspection, after a full year of CCA operation, the tone had changed.
For prisoners in private facilities, internal control over the administrative grievance process stifles the concerns of a population already limited in mobility, legal options, and credible standing.
Right now, there are over 128,000 people on United States soil being held in privately-operated correctional facilities. Financially dependent on the government and hired to enforce the burden of public justice, these private prisons are nonetheless not subject to FOIA.
Beryl Lipton sent this request to the Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General of the United States of America
Beryl Lipton sent this request to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Region VI: Dallas of the United States of America
Beryl Lipton sent this request to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Region X: Seattle of the United States of America