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3 Months in Juvie For a MySpace Joke? How the For-Profit Prison Industry Locks Up More People Each Year

Private prisons are marked by corruption, expense, abuses--and yet their reach is vast, and it's growing.

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In the past five years, the nation's largest private prison company has partnered with the federal government to detain close to a million undocumented people waiting to be deported or to appear before an immigration judge. In the process, CCA has made record profits. Critics suggest that CCA cuts corners on its detention contracts in order to increase its revenue at the expense of humane conditions. Thanks to political connections and lobbying, it dominates the immigrant detention industry. CCA now has close to 10,000 new beds under development in anticipation of continued demand.

Judith Greene, a policy analyst with Justice Strategies, a nonprofit sentencing-reform advocacy group in New York, says, "Profits by no means created the machinery of mass incarceration, no more than defense contracts invented war, but the huge profits to be made by incarcerating an ever-growing segment of our population serves the system very well."

"Profits oil the machinery, keep it humming and speed its growth,"  she adds.

For-profit prison companies claim to be able to provide prison and detention services to cities, counties, states and the federal government for less money - an idea that cash-strapped communities apparently find irresistible.

Yet, studies throughout the country show that private prisons are only marginally less expensive than public prisons and are often substantially more expensive. The second issue is a medical care regimen that, until recently, allowed the government such wide discretion that it could deny urgent care, including biopsies for suspected cancers and treatment of heart conditions.

Moreover, a panoply of hidden subsidies is rarely calculated into the private prison industry's cost claims. According to a study by Paul Wright, the founder and editor of "Prison Legal News," a prisoners' rights advocacy newsletter, at least 44, or 73 percent, of the 60 facilities (studied) had received a development subsidy from local, state and/or federal government sources. Subsidies were found in 17 of the 19 states in which the 60 facilities are located.

Facilities operated by the two largest private prison companies, CCA and GEO, were frequently subsidized. Among the facilities in this study, 78 percent of CCA's and 69 percent of GEO's prisons were subsidized, suggesting that these companies had been aggressive in seeking development subsidies.

According to the not-for-profit Private Corrections Institute, "the private prison industry relies on a number of allies and research studies to justify its claims of cost savings and proficiency; however, most of these sources have industry connections or vested financial interests."

For example, it claims, the Reason Foundation, a strong proponent of prison privatization, has received funding from private prison firms. The American Correctional Association (ACA) receives sponsorship money from CCA, GEO, and other private prison companies for its biannual conferences.

Former University of Florida Prof. Charles Thomas conducted supposedly impartial research on the private prison industry until it was learned that he owned private prison stock, had been paid $3 million for consulting for a private prison firm and served on the board of Prison Realty Trust (a CCA spin-off). Thomas was fined $20,000 by the Florida Commission on Ethics and stepped down from his university position.

Private prisons are paid according to filled beds. So, they are constantly pushing for more inmates - while officials of publicly owned prisons are trying to shed prisoners to relieve overcrowding and reduce expenses.

Private prisons seek to save money by hiring less experienced staff. The result of that policy can be seen in the disproportionate numbers of poorly controlled prison riots, by unsanitary health conditions, by substandard record-keeping, by high employee turnover and by the number of deaths in detention.

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