Nebraska Lawmaker Wants Her State To Stop Paying Private Prisons For Empty Cells

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Promising to keep private prison cells full will be illegal in Nebraska if a proposal from state Sen. Amanda McGill (D) becomes law.

McGill, who is running for higher state office this year, has introduced legislation banning the government from guaranteeing payment to private contractors regardless of the level of service the contractor provide. While that may sound so obvious as to be unnecessary, states often make those kinds of promises to corporations when they privatize public services.

The most notorious examples are private prison contracts that guarantee companies like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) a certain minimum occupancy level at prisons, and promise to pay CCA the difference should prison populations sag below that level. Such “lock-up quotas” appear in two-thirds of all prison privatization contracts, according to a report last fall by the anti-privatization group In The Public Interest (ITPI).

McGill’s legislation would ban those kinds of payment guarantees across all state contracts, but is specifically targeted at prison contracts. The bill also would amend the state’s corrections contracting law in a variety of ways to both protect taxpayers and regulate prison companies more tightly.

While attempts to improve prison contracts won’t stop America from being the world’s leading jailer on their own, reforms like the one McGill proposes would help change the incentives that lawmakers and law enforcement officials face. Contracts that force public payments for empty cells give elected officials reason to keep prisons as full as possible, which means criminalizing as many behaviors as possible. The largest driver of America’s incarceration epidemic is the futile, decades-old War on Drugs, but backroom deals with prison companies compound the country’s larger problem.

If laws like McGill’s were to take root across the country, the prison industry would lose one of its biggest arguments in favor of investing in companies like CCA.

Skyrocketing profits aside, the prison industry saw some setbacks last year. In a single month last fall, CCA lost contracts in Idaho, Texas, and Mississippi. The Idaho prison that closed was so violent and brutal that it was nicknamed “Gladiator School,” and CCA juiced its profits there by understaffing the facility, effectively outsourcing prison security to gangs of prisoners.

America spends 2.5 times as much per prisoner as it does per public school student. The country’s incarceration levels help drive economic inequality, and the combination of criminalization and neglect creates a “cradle-to-prison pipeline” for black and latino Americans.