Powerful economic forces fuel America’s incarceration rate, which is the highest in the world. Private prisons are owned and operated by corporations, but funded by state and federal governments. The number of private prisons in the United States increased from five in 1998 to a hundred in 2008, and Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison company, has seen its profits increase more than 500 percent in the last 20 years. In 2010, the nation’s two largest private prison companies imprisoned more than 120,000 people and took in nearly $3 billion in revenue.
Huge profits from the warehousing of human beings create perverse incentives and hinder efforts to reform sentencing laws, emphasize rehabilitation goals, and reduce the prison population. Private prison contracts routinely include “lock-up quotas” that require state governments to maintain a minimum level of occupancy or pay a penalty for uninhabited beds. Private prison companies fund expensive lobbying efforts to influence state criminal policies. As Corrections Corporation of America explained in its 2010 annual statement, “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by . . . leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices.”
In a system where state governments are financially punished by for-profit companies when they incarcerate fewer citizens, and private corporations are allowed to spend vast sums of money to influence legislators, harsh laws have flourished and prison populations have grown dramatically. Private prison companies continue to profit from policies that disproportionately target and incarcerate the poor and people of color.