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6 Companies That Make Their Money Ensnaring People In Our Prison System

Probation services are being contracted out to the highest bidders.

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To be ensnared in America's mass incarceration system means being in prison, on parole or probation. After three solid decades of rising arrest rates, there are now approximately 7,163,000 people in the penal system: nearly 10 percent of the population over the age of 18.

It’s not just drug charges that have landed people in jail or on probation; laws criminalizing innocuous acts have proliferated across the country, and people find themselves locked up for crimes like  smuggling flowers or jaywalking. Cash-strapped municipalities and states have hardly been able to keep up with ballooning arrest rates. Where public funds have fallen short, private corporations have readily picked up the tab, with generous compensation assured by our elected leaders.

Although private sector involvement in prisons is not a new concept — companies have longed provided food, medical care and other amenities within prisons for years — what is relatively new is whole correctional services being divorced from public control and managed by corporations. Right now, private prisons house roughly 10 percent of all state and federal inmates. Around 66 percent are racial minorities.

Probation services are also increasingly being contracted out to the highest bidders. Private probation is emerging across the nation as the latest way to profit from over 4 million low-level offenders, many of whom are poor people of color.

These are boom times for the punishment industry, as Angela Davis once called it. So long as federal and state governments continue to criminalize the mundane and subsidize punitive policing, business will remain extremely lucrative. Here are six corporations that profit from keeping humans mired in the criminal justice system.

1. Sentinel Offender Services: Sentinel is the richest probation company in the country, bringing in $30 million in 2009. The company has faced a number of lawsuits alleging its employees demand onerous payments from poor probationers. The company also issues arrests warrants when probationers cannot pay, without legally mandated consideration for defendants’ financial situation. Sentinel has even extended the probationary sentences of thousands — illegally — in order to wrest more money from them.

A Georgia court recently ruled that the company would have to refund "perhaps thousands" of payments to former probationers who had the unfortunate luck to be supervised by a company that, as the ACLU reports, “links its probation officers’ performance evaluations to the amount of money collected from probationers.”

2. Judicial Correctional Services: This probationary company was founded by an Alabama circuit court to be operating “debtor’s prisons” in collusion with the local municipality of Harpersville, Alabama. In the event that a probationer couldn’t pay his court fees up front — which happens often in the fourth poorest state in the country — the court would turn the indigent person over to JCS.

People who couldn’t pay their monthly fees to the company were thrown in jail without a trial at the urging of JCS. The Harpersville court would then heap even more fines and fees on top of desperate defendants.

The circuit judge who ruled against Harpersville was so disturbed by the JCS-judiciary collusion that he accused the local court of “violating almost every safeguard afforded by the United States Constitution [and] the laws of the state of Alabama.” Despite the ruling, JCS continues to operate in 69 cities throughout four different states, and is looking to spread even further.

3. Detention Management Services: Although Sentinel officially bought out DMS some years ago, the company merits a mention for its role in expanding the probation syndicate in Georgia. Other states wanting to expand private probation will likely model their legislation on a bill that was propped up by DMS money.