No matter how private companies profit on prisons, privatizing incarceration puts the pursuit of profits over the needs of taxpayers, prisoners, and prison employees. This was the topic of discussion among three AFSC staff members during a one-hour Google Hangout on Air held July 17, 2013.

During the discussion, Caroline Isaacs, who authored the first-ever systematic study of all for-profit prisons operating in Arizona, relayed her experiences in the struggle against privatization.

“We wanted to get a baseline of how they’re performing,” Caroline says of the 2011-12 study. 

What they found, however, was that the public safety risks and cost inefficiencies of the Arizona prisons were not due to isolated mismanagement—they were due to problems inherent in the private prison industry. “There are really some problems that arise that are just linked fundamentally to the business model that’s employed by private prisons,” she explained.

Caroline: "What's wrong with private prisons"

Mobilizing a movement against privatization

These lessons from Arizona came into play in New Hampshire last year when the New Hampshire Prison Watch Coalition invited Caroline to speak at locations around the state that had been floated as private-prison sites.

The coalition, organized by AFSC’s Arnie Alpert and allies from several partner organizations, was eventually able to shift public opinion so dramatically that state lawmakers decided to put on hold all plans to privatize corrections in the state.

Arnie: "Shifting public opinion outweighed private prison lobby in New Hampshire"

[Get the rest of this story at: afsc.org/video/how-new-hampshire-coalition-stopped-prison-privatization-now]

Immigration detention is focus for private companies looking for somewhere to expand

“More and more states are getting smart about this,” Arnie said, crediting activists’ work to expose the realities of for-profit prisons with educating the public and lawmakers, who are beginning to turn away from privatization like New Hampshire did this spring.

“Meanwhile the private companies are finding more and more lucrative contracts with the federal government for immigrant detention,” he explained. “So the numbers of immigrants who are being detained in these private facilities has been going up, while the numbers of state prisoners, detainees in private facilities has been going down.”

Caroline: "What border enforcement expansions would mean for private detention centers"

About half of the immigrant detainees currently held are in for-profit facilities, Caroline explained.

“This is about half of the business for the two largest private-prison companies, CCA and GEO. About half of their contracts are state contracts, and the other half are federal—and that’s almost exclusively ICE and U.S. Marshalls. So it’s a very lucrative part of their business and it’s one that they are of course going to pursue expanding.”

Wasted money, no accountability

Like New Hampshire, Michigan began to consider privatization in 2010.

Natalie Holbrook, whose work to reform corrections in Michigan includes close monitoring of prison conditions, spoke on Wednesday about the flawed logic of privatizing corrections services in order to save the state money. Depopulating prisons by paroling people who have proved that they’re ready to be released is one alternative that would quickly save the state money.

Natalie: "There are other ways for Michigan to save money on corrections"

At the end of the day, accountability for taxpayer money is one of the major flaws of the privatization model.

Natalie and Caroline: "Privatizing corrections is a problem for accountability and monitoring"

Ways to monitor private contracts

Despite the challenges, activists like Natalie, Caroline, and Arnie are not backing down.

They wrapped up the Google Hangout with tips on what people can do in their own states when a private facility is proposed or prison services are slated for privatization:

Caroline and Natalie: "Finding contract information for privatizated prison services"

As mentioned on the call, in August 2013 DBA Press published an audio tutorial focused on the use of public records requests and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in gathering information from government entities.

You can watch the full recording of "Profiteering on prisons" at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6j7HcrGmhQ