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

Human Rights

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.

The firm paid $75,000 in 2003 to Bobby Whitworth, chair of Georgia’s Board of Pardons and Paroles, to draft and lobby for legislation that expanded the power of probation companies by “transfer[ing] supervision of approximately 25,000 misdemeanants from the State Department of Corrections to the individual counties.” The transfer gave DMS and other probation companies more defendants to supervise, since only counties can contract out probationary services.

Whitworth was eventually jailed for receiving kickbacks, but the law he helped nurture still stands, and now a tight group of Georgian prison professionals are building up the probation business at a time of scarce funds for public services: “This [industry] is completely dominated by retired state probation people and wardens of state prisons,” Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “They created this industry for themselves.”

A new bill sitting in the Georgia legislature would grant probation firms even more power by allowing them to set probationers’ “tolling” periods, which means more freedom to suspend and resume sentences with court approval. It would also give private probation officers increased “immunity from liability.” The law stands on the shoulders of the earlier measure that sailed through the legislature thanks in part to DMS funding. 

4. Providence Community Corrections: PCC is the probation-providing subsidiary of Providence Service Corporation, whose website extols the “high-quality” of its “human social services [and] collaborative care services.”

PCC was the subject of a 2011 lawsuit by a Tennessee woman who claimed the company’s employees “harassed and intimidated” her into paying an excessive amount of fees to the company. A judge dismissed the case in 2012 for undisclosed reasons, but a PCC outfit in Georgia received some attention a year later when one of its employees was arrested on charges of embezzling probationers’ fees. According to a local judge, PCC had already raised some eyebrows for its reported low collection rate and high number of unclosed probation cases.

Other probation firms like Sentinel have come under legal scrutiny for keeping cases open beyond what was originally mandated by a judge, in order to prolong the “payment period” throughout which defendants must pay penalty fees that compound over time. 

5. GEO Group Inc.: This is the second largest prison corporation in the country, and is the purveyor of prison facilities one civil rights lawsuit called “barbaric and unconstitutional.” 

One of the company’s prisons, the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi, was the subject of a lawsuit led by the ACLU in 2011 for incubating a Hobbesian-style nightmare in which gangs composed of inmates and guards savagely beat and sexually preyed on weaker inmates.

GEO Group ceded management of the facility in 2012, but that hasn’t dampened its ambitions: the company attempted to slap its name on a football stadium owned by Florida Atlantic University for $6 million, and is moving into ancillary penal services by buying up firms that specialize in rehabilitative services for inmates as well as businesses that produce products to track-and-monitor former inmates on parole or probation.

6. Corrections Corporation of America: CCA is the alpha and omega of privatized punishment: the bull’s-eye of a Venn diagram unified by nihilistic capitalism, puritanical persecution and structural racism.

Established in 1983 and with a total revenue of $1.7 billion in 2012, CCA has done it all: lobbied for greater criminal oversight over illegal immigrants, opposed the “relaxation and leniency of enforcement efforts,” found to be fatally negligent in the care of its inmates, sued multiple times by the ACLU for sanctioning an atmosphere of vicious violence in its facilities, and made headlines for sending its employees into public schools to sweep for drugs.

In 2012, CCA offered to buy up existing prisons in 48 states in return for a guaranteed 90 percent prisoner occupancy rate for 20 years, effectively redefining the justice system on the terms of a single business contract.

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