A record number of lawmakers may be calling for shorter sentences and less people in prison. But in the prison industry, contracts with states and local jurisdictions commit them to filling private prison beds — or pay them to keep those beds empty.
A new report by In the Public Interest finds that private prison contracts that include “occupancy requirements” — effectively inmate quotas — are alarmingly common. Among the 62 contracts that they were able to obtain, 65 percent contained occupancy provisions that required prisons to remain between 80 and 100 percent full, and can last for as long as 20 years. If beds sit empty, states still have to pay, which the report dubbed a “no-crime tax.” And even when the abuses and violations for which these private firms are notorious cause the state to remove prisoners, contractual deals compel the state to keep paying.
These occupancy requirements are often added after contracts are in place, in deals that happen behind closed doors. In Colorado, Corrections Corporation of America persuaded the state to add an occupancy requirement to the budget for the 2013 fiscal year, even though the initial contract explicitly stated, “the state does not guarantee any minimum number of offenders will be assigned.” This means that when the state’s prison population decreased, it left state prison facility beds empty and continued paying CCA to fill beds. Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition estimates that the deal cost the state at least $2 million. The report explains, “Colorado originally intended its private prisons to be used for overflow purposes, but the bed guarantee provisions allowed it to become the first priority for placement.”
In Arizona, three facilities negotiated prison occupancy guarantees of 100 percent, and when multiple security violations at one facility led to the escape of a couple who later committed a murder, the state’s attempts to remove prisoners from the facility resulted in a lawsuit by MTC, which the state settled by agreeing to continue paying for the empty beds at a 97 percent occupancy rate.
In many instances, the duration of these contracts can be as troubling as the occupancy rate. Ohio, for example, is locked into 20-year contracts to keep the occupancy rate at 90 percent in facilities managed by CCA. Some of these facilities have been among the most notorious for mismanagement and abuse. Perversely, many of the problems in these prisons are caused by overcrowding that comes from the high occupancy requirement.
CCA spokesman Steve Owen told the Shreveport Times that less than half of its contracts have these provisions but that they are sometimes necessary for a feasible business model because if a state asks the firm to build a facility and “spend tens of millions of dollars, we have to have some assurance it’s going to be used.”
Owen’s statement is simply a rational explanation of why private prisons are a problem. Firms have an incentive to keep their profits high and their overhead low, by lobbying for more incarceration and longer sentences, rather than rehabilitation and conditions that facilitate safe release. CCA and GEO have spent millions of dollars in lobbying for these policies, and repeatedly assure investors that a “growing offender population” and “strong demand” for beds will keep profits strong.