Prison in the United States of America

Free-Enterprise slave labour, racial discrimination and human rights violation in the Gulags of the Land of the Free


Source of information on this page

The most Profitable Industry in the US: America's Private Gulag (by Ken Silverstein)

Strange Bedfellows: Political corruption in the US Gulag business (by Alex Friedmann)

Massive racial discrimination in the US prison business

Idiotic and inhumane incarceration rates for non-violent minor drug offences

Other basic constitutional rights under threat in the USA

America's Private Gulag

by Ken Silverstein - © 1997 by KenSilverstein

What is the most profitable industry in America? Weapons, oil and computer technology all offer high rates of return, but there is probably no sector of the economy so abloom with money as the privately-run prison industry.

Consider the growth of the Corrections Corporation of America, the industry leader whose stock price has climbed from $8 a share in 1992 to about $30 today and whose revenue rose by 81 percent in 1995 alone.

Investors in Wackenhut Corrections Corp. have enjoyed an average return of 18 per cent during the past five years and the company is rated by Forbes as one of the top 200 small businesses in the country. At Esmor, another big private prison contractor, revenues have soared from $4.6 million in 1990 to more than $25 million in 1995.

Ten years ago there were just five privately-run prisons in the country, housing a population of 2,000. Today nearly a score of private firms run more than 100 prisons with about 62,000 beds. That's still less than five per cent of the total market but the industry is expanding fast, with the number of private prison beds expected to grow to 360,000 during the next decade.

The exhilaration among leaders and observers of the private prison sector was cheerfully summed up by the headline in USA Today: "Everybody's doing the jailhouse stock." An equally upbeat mood imbued a conference on private prisons held last December at the Four Seasons Resort in Dallas. The brochure of the conference, organized by the World Research Group, a New York-based investment firm, called the corporate takeover of correctional facilities the "newest trend in the area of privatizing previously government-run programs... While arrests and convictions are steadily on the rise, profits are to be made, profits from crime. Get in on the ground floor of this booming industry now!"

A hundred years ago private prisons were a familiar feature of American life, with disastrous consequences. Prisoners were farmed out as slave labor. They were routinely beaten and abused, fed slop and kept in horribly overcrowded cells. Conditions were so wretched that by the end of the nineteenth century private prisons were outlawed in most states. During the past decade, private prisons have made a comeback. Already 28 states have passed legislation making it legal for private contractors to run correctional facilities and many more states are expected to follow suit.

The reasons for the rapid expansion include the post-1980s free-market ideological fervor, large budget deficits for the federal and state governments and the discovery and creation of vast new reserves of "raw materials", prisoners. The rate for most serious crimes has been dropping or stagnant for the past 15 years, but during the same period severe repeat offender provisions and a racist "get-tough" policy on drugs have helped push the US prison population up from 300,000 to about 1.5 million. This has produced a corresponding boom in prison construction and costs, with the federal government's annual expenditures in the area of $17 billion. In California, passage of the infamous "three strikes" bill will result in the construction of an additional 20 prisons during the next few years.

The private prison business is most entrenched at the state level but is expanding into the federal prison system as well. Last year Attorney General Janet Reno announced that five of seven new federal prisons being built will be run by the private sector. Almost all of the prisons run by private firms are low or medium security, but the companies are trying to break into the high-security field. They have also begun taking charge of management in INS detention centers, boot camps for juvenile offenders and substance abuse programs.

Roughly half of the industry is controlled by the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America, which runs 46 penal institutions in 11 states. It took ten years for the company to reach 10,000 beds; it is now growing by the same number every year. CCA's chief competitor is Wackenhut, which was founded in 1954 by George Wackenhut, a former FBI official. Over the years its board and staff have included such veterans of the US national security state as Frank Carlucci, Bobby Ray Inman and William Casey, as well as Jorge Mas Canosa, leader of the fanatic Cuban American National Foundation. The company also provides security services to private corporations. It has provided strikebreakers at the Pittston mine strike in Kentucky, hired unlicensed investigators to ferret out whistle blowers at Alyeska, the company that controls the Alaskan oil pipeline, and beaten anti-nuclear demonstrators at facilities it guards for the Department of Energy.

Wackenhut has a third of the private prison market with 24 contracts, nine of which were signed during the past two years. In a major coup, the company was chosen to run a 2,200 capacity prison in Hobbs, New Mexico, which will become the largest private prison in the US when it opens late this year. Esmor, the No. 3 firm in the field, was founded only a few years ago and already operates ten corrections or detention facilities. The company's board includes William Barrett, a director of Frederick's of Hollywood, and CEO James Slattery, whose previous experience was investing in and managing hotels.

US companies also have been expanding abroad. The big three have facilities in Australia, England and Puerto Rico and are now looking at opportunities in Europe, Canada, Brazil, Mexico and China. The companies that dominate the private prison business claim that they offer the taxpayers a bargain because they operate far more cheaply than do state firms. As one industry report put it. "CEOs of privatized companies... are leaner and more motivated than their public-sector counterparts." But even if privatization does save money, and the evidence here is contradictory , there is, in the words of Jenni Gainsborough of the ACLU's National Prison Project, "a basic philosophical problem when you begin turning over administration of prisons to people who have an interest in keeping people locked up."

To be profitable, private prison firms must ensure that prisons are not only built but also filled. Industry experts say a 90 to 95 per cent capacity rate is needed to guarantee the hefty rates of return needed to lure investors. Prudential Securities issued a wildly bullish report on CCA a few years ago but cautioned, "It takes time to bring inmate population levels up to where they cover costs. Low occupancy is a drag on profits." Still, said the report, company earnings would be strong if CCA succeeded in "ramp[ing] up population levels in its new facilities at an acceptable rate." (PT's italics)

A 1993 report from the State Department of Corrections in New Mexico found that CCA prisons issued more disciplinary reports, with harsher sanctions imposed, including the loss of time off for good behavior,  than did those run by the state. A prisoner at a CCA prison said, "State run facilities are overcrowded and there's no incentive to keep inmates as long as possible... CCA on the other hand reluctantly awards good time. They give it because they have to but they take it every opportunity they get... Parole packets are constantly getting lost or misfiled. Many of us are stuck here beyond our release dates."

Private prison companies have also begun to push, even if discreetly, for the type of get-tough policies needed to ensure their continued growth. All the major firms in the field have hired big-time lobbyists. When it was seeking a contract to run a halfway house in New York City, Esmor hired a onetime aide to state Rep. Edolphus Towns to lobby on its behalf. The aide succeeded in winning the contract and also the vote of his former boss, who had been an opponent of the project. In 1995, Wackenhut Chairman Tim Cole testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee to urge support for amendments to the Violent Crime Control Act,  which subsequently passed, that authorized the expenditure of $10 billion to construct and repair state prisons.

CCA has been especially adept at expansion via political payoffs. The first prison the company managed was the Silverdale Workhouse in Hamilton County, Tennessee. After Commissioner Bob Long voted to accept CCA's bid for the project, the company awarded Long's pest control firm a lucrative contract. When Long decided the time was right to quit public life, CCA hired him to lobby on its behalf. CCA has been a major financial supporter of Lamar Alexander, the former Tennessee governor and failed presidential candidate. In one of a number of sweetheart deals, Lamar's wife, Honey Alexander, made more than $130,000 on a $5,000 investment in CCA. Tennessee Governor Ned McWherter is another CCA stockholder and is quoted in the company's 1995 annual report as saying that "the federal government would be well served to privatize all of their corrections."

The prison industry has also made generous use of the junket as a public relations technique. Wackenhut recently flew a New York-based reporter from Switzerland,  where the company is fishing for business,  to Florida for a tour of one of its prisons. The reporter was driven around by limousine, had all her expenses covered and was otherwise treated royally. In another ominous development, the revolving door between the public and private sector has led to the type of company boards that are typical of those found in the military-industrial complex. CCA co-founders were T. Don Hutto, an ex-corrections commissioner in Virginia, and Tom Beasley, a former Chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party. A top company official is Michael Quinlan, once director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The board of Wackenhut is graced by a former Marine Corps commander, two retired Air Force generals and a former under secretary to the Air Force, as well as by James Thompson, ex-governor of Illinois, Stuart Gerson, a former assistant US attorney general and Richard Staley, who previously worked with the INS.

Because they are private firms that answer to shareholders, prison companies have been predictably vigorous in seeking ways to cut costs. In 1985, a private firm tried to site a prison on a toxic waste dump in Pennsylvania, which it had bought at the bargain rate of $1. Fortunately, that plan was rejected. Many states pay private contractors a per diem rate, as low as $31 a prisoner in Texas. A federal investigation traced a 1994 riot at an Esmor immigration detention center to the company's having skimped on food, building repairs and guard salaries. At an Esmor-run halfway house in Manhattan, inspectors turned up leaky plumbing, exposed electrical wires, vermin and inadequate food.

To ratchet up profit margins, companies have cut corners on drug rehabilitation, counseling and literacy programs. In 1995, Wackenhut was investigated for diverting $700,000 intended for drug treatment programs at a Texas prison. In Florida the US Corrections Corporation was found to be in violation of a provision in its state contract that requires prisoners to be placed in meaningful work or educational assignments. The company had assigned 235 prisoners to be dorm orderlies when no more than 48 were needed and enrollment in education programs was well below what the contract called for. Such incidents led a prisoner at a CCA facility in Tennessee to conclude, "There is something inherently sinister about making money from the incarceration of prisoners, and in putting CCA's bottom line (money) before society's bottom line (rehabilitation)."

The companies try to cut costs by offering less training and pay to staff. Almost all workers at state prisons get union-scale pay but salaries for private prison guards range from about $7 to $10 per hour. Of course the companies are anti-union. When workers attempted to organize at Tennessee's South Central prison, CCA sent officials down from Nashville to quash the effort. Poor pay and work conditions have led to huge turnover rates at private prisons. A report by the Florida auditor's office found that turnover at the Gadsden Correctional Facility for women, run by the US Corrections Corporation, was 200 per cent, ten times the rate at state prisons. Minutes from an administrative meeting at a CCA prison in Tennessee have the "chief" recorded as saying, "We all know that we have lots of new staff and are constantly in the training mode... Many employees [are] totally lost and had never worked in corrections."

Private companies also try to nickel and dime prisoners in the effort to boost revenue. A prisoner at a Florida prison run by CCA has sued the company for charging a $2.50 fee per phone call and 50 cents per minute thereafter. The lawsuit also charges that it can take a prisoner more than a month to see a doctor. A number of prisoners complain about exorbitant prices. "Canteen prices are outrageous," wrote a prisoner at the Gadsden facility in Florida. "[We] pay more for a pack of cigarettes than in the free world." Neither do private firms provide prisoners with soap, toothpaste, tooth brushes or writing paper. One female prisoner at a CCA prison in New Mexico said: "The state gives five free postage paid envelopes per month to prisoners, nothing at CCA. State provides new coats, jeans, shirts, underwear and replaces them as needed. CCA rarely buys new clothing and inmates are often issued tattered and stained clothing. Same goes for linens. Also ration toilet paper and paper towels. If you run out, too bad, 3 rolls every two weeks."

General conditions at private prisons appear in some respects to be somewhat better than those found at state institutions, a fact possibly linked to the negative business impact that a prison disturbance can cause private firms. For example, the share price of stock in Esmor plunged from $20 to $7 after a 1994 revolt at the company's detention center for immigrants in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Nevertheless a number of serious problems at prisons run by private interests still exist. Back in the mid-1980s, a visiting group of professional guards from England toured the CCA's 360-bed state prison in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and reported that inmates were "cruelly treated" and "problem" prisoners had been gagged with sticky tape. The warden regaled his guests with graphic descriptions of strip shows performed by female inmates for male guards. Investigators at a CCA jail in New Mexico found that guards had inflicted injuries on prisoners ranging from cuts and scrapes to broken bones. Riots have erupted at various private facilities. In one of the worst, guards at CCA's West Tennessee Detentional Center fired pepper gas canisters into two dormitories to quell a riot after prisoners shipped from North Carolina revolted over being sent far from their families.

In addition to the companies that directly manage America's prisons, many other firms are getting a piece of the private prison action. American Express has invested millions of dollars in private prison construction in Oklahoma and General Electric has helped finance construction in Tennessee. Goldman Sachs & Co., Merrill Lynch, Smith Barney, among other Wall Street firms, have made huge sums by underwriting prison construction with the sale of tax-exempt bonds, this now a thriving $2.3 billion industry.  Weapons manufacturers see both public and private prisons as a new outlet for "defense" technology, such as electronic bracelets and stun guns. Private transport companies have lucrative contracts to move prisoners within and across state lines; health care companies supply jails with doctors and nurses; food service firms provide prisoners with meals. High-tech firms are also moving into the field; the Que-Tel Corp. hopes for vigorous sales of its new system whereby prisoners are bar coded and guards carry scanners to monitor their movements. Phone companies such as AT&T chase after the enormously lucrative prison business.

About three-quarters of new admissions to American jails and prisons are now African-American and Hispanic men. This  trend, combined with an increasingly privatized and profitable prison system run largely by whites, makes for what Jerome Miller, a former youth corrections officer in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, calls the emerging Gulag State. Miller predicts that the Gulag State will be in place within 15 years. He expects three to five million people to be behind bars, including an absolute majority of African-American men. It's comparable, he says, to the post-Civil War period, when authorities came to view the prison system as a cheaper, more efficient substitute for slavery. Of the state's current approach to crime and law enforcement, Miller says, "The race card has changed the whole playing field. Because the prison system doesn't affect a significant percentage of young white men we'll increasingly see prisoners treated as commodities. For now the situation is a bit more benign than it was back in the nineteenth century but I'm not sure it will stay that way for long."

Side Bar

Private prison companies have been predictably enthusiastic about the booming market for convict labor. Between 1980 and 1994, the value of goods produced by prisoners rose from $392 million to $1.31 billion. Prisoners now make articles such as clothes, car parts, computer components, shoes, golf balls, soap, furniture and mattresses, in addition to staffing jailhouse telemar-keting data entry and print shop operations. Some states have even begun assigning prisoners to institutions after matching up their job skills with a prison's labor needs. Prisoners at state-run institutions generally receive the minimum wage, though in some states, such as Colorado, wages fall to as low at $2 per hour (workers receive only about 20 per cent of that amount, with the rest going to pay room and board, victims compensation programs and other fees). As an added bonus, companies that employ prison labor have no need to offer benefits, vacation days or sick time to employees and many states offer such firms tax breaks and other advantages as well.

Lured by such enticements, many big firms have moved eagerly into the prison-industrial complex. Trans World Airlines pays prison workers $5 per hour to book reservations by phone, less than a third of the rate it previously paid to its own employees. The EAU succeeded in shutting down a program at an Ohio prison where the Waste corporation was paying prisoners $2.05 per hour to assemble parts for Honda cars.

For businesses, the deal is even sweeter at private prisons where pay rates can be as low as 17 cents per hour for a six hour maximum day, which translates into a monthly pay check of about $20. The maximum pay scale at a CCA prison in Tennessee is 50 cents an hour for what are classified as "highly skilled positions." Given such rates it's not surprising that a prisoner there
complained about the relative generosity of publicly-run programs, saying, "At federal prisons you can take home $1.25 per hour and work eight hours a day, sometimes even double shifts. A two, three or four hundred dollars a month check isnât unusual in the feds."

Thanks to prison labor, America is again attracting the sorts of jobs that were formerly available only to workers of the Third World. A US company operating in Mexico's maquiladora zone shut down its data processing shop and moved it to the San Quentin State Prison in California. A Texas factory booted 150 workers and set up shop at a privately-run prison in Lockhart, Texas, where worker/inmates assemble circuit boards for companies including IBM and Compaq. Oregon State Rep. Kevin Mannix has even encouraged Nike to shift production from Indonesia to his home state, saying the shoemaker should "take a look at transportation and labor costs. We could offer competitive prison labor (here).

Strange Bedfellows: CCA's Political Connections

by Alex Friedmann

The following article originally appeared in CounterPunch, a Washington, DC-based political newsletter (CounterPunch, PO Box 18675, Washington, DC 20036.)

CCA's connection with local politics began when the Nashville-based company was formed during Governor Lamar  Alexander's administration. When CCA made a bid to operate Tennessee's entire prison system in 1985, the governor's wife, Honey Alexander, was criticized for owning $5,000 of CCA stock. She realized a substantial profit ($100,000) when she converted the stock to a blind trust in order to avoid an apparent conflict of interest. CCA chairman emeritus Thomas Beasley, who co-founded the company in 1983, was previously a chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party. Among CCA's board members is Clayton McWhorter, an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Tennessee governor in 1994.

From 1994-96, Doctor Crants, CCA's chief executive officer, and CCA's chairman emeritus Thomas Beasley donated at least $60,491 to Tennessee lawmakers, including $38,500 to Sundquist's re-election campaign (this includes donations from Beasley's wife, Wendy). In 1996 alone, Crants donated $22,450 to 46 state political candidates, including $2,000 to Rep. Randy Rinks, House Democratic Caucus chairman; and $1,350 to Senator Jim Kyle, chairman of the Select Oversight Committee on Corrections. CCA has seven registered political lobbyists in Tennessee.

In 1995, Governor Sundquist endorsed a controversial arrangement whereby CCA could contract with Hardeman County, TN, to construct and operate a 1,540-bed "jail," funded with $47 million in municipal bonds guaranteed by the state, to house state prisoners. This arrangement circumvented a TN state statute that allows only one privately-managed state prison to operate in Tennessee at a time. State Senator Robert Rochelle, who received at least $1,000 in campaign contributions from CCA board members, sponsored a bill to permit privatization of any newly-built state prisons. He has sponsored other legislation on behalf of CCA. Peaches Simkins, Governor Sundquist's former Chief of Staff, reportedly owned CCA stock while she was advising the governor on prison privatization. The Speaker of the House in Tennessee's General Assembly, Jimmy Naifeh, is married to CCA political lobbyist Betty Anderson. In terms of connections on a U.S. Congressional level, CCA employs several former high-ranking members of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, as well as Dr. Tyree Tanner, the brother of U.S. Representative John S. Tanner.

Racial discrimination in the US Gulag business

Reports from Human Rights Watch (HRW)

Some states send black men to prison at rates 27 to 57 times greater than whites (New York, June 8, 2000) -- The U.S. war on drugs has been waged overwhelmingly against black Americans, Human Rights Watch charged in a new report released today. The report, "Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs," includes the first state-by-state analysis of the role of race and drugs in prison admissions. All of the 37 states Human Rights Watch studied send black drug offenders to prison at far higher rates than whites.

For more, visit See also:

  • Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs

  • HRW Report, June 2000

  • War on Drugs: Focus on Human Rights —

  • Drugs and Human Rights in the United States —

  • "These racial disparities are a national scandal," said Ken Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. "Black and white drug offenders get radically different treatment in the American justice system. This is not only profoundly unfair to blacks, it also corrodes the American ideal of equal justice for all."

    The ten states with the greatest racial disparities are: Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Maine, Iowa, Maryland, Ohio, New Jersey, North Carolina, and West Virginia. In these states, black men are sent to prison on drug charges at 27 to 57 times the rate of white men.

    "Most drug offenders are white. Five times as many whites use drugs as blacks," said Jamie Fellner, Human Rights Watch associate counsel and author of the report. "But blacks comprise the great majority of drug offenders sent to prison. The solution to this racial inequity is not to incarcerate more whites, but to reduce the use of prison for low-level drug offenders
    and to increase the availability of substance abuse treatment."

    Among the report's key findings:

  • Nationwide, blacks comprise 62 percent of drug offenders admitted to state prison. In seven states, blacks constitute between 80 and 90 percent of all people sent to prison on drug charges.

  • Nationwide, black men are sent to state prison on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men.

  • Two out of five blacks sent to prison are convicted of drug offenses, compared to one in four whites.

  • Black men are incarcerated at 9.6 times the rate of white men. In eleven states, they are incarcerated at rates that are 12 to 26 times greater than that of white men.

  • Nationwide, one in every 20 black men over the age of 18 is in prison.

  • In five states, between one in 13 and one in 14 black men is in prison.

  • Idiotic and inhumane incarceration rates for non-violent minor drug offences

    The Human Rights Watch document "Punishment and Prejudice" also accounts for how drug law enforcement has fueled the exploding U.S. prison population. It should be noted that: [1] during the 1990s, more than one hundred thousand people were admitted to prison on drug charges every year; [2] over 1.5 million prison admissions on drug charges have occurred since 1980; [3] The incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders has propelled the nation's soaring incarceration rate, the highest in the western world.

    Human Rights Watch calls for changes in drug control strategies to minimize their racially disproportionate impact and to reduce the overincarceration of nonviolent offenders. Among its recommendations, Human Rights Watch urges states to: [1] repeal mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenders; [2] increase the availability of alternative sanctions; [3] increase the use of drug courts; [4] increase the availability of substance abuse treatment; and eliminate racial profiling.

    In the past decade, the U.S. Congress and many state legislatures have established harsh criminal penalties for a wide range of drug offenses, often using the vehicle of mandatory minimum prison sentences. As a consequence, drug offenders in the United States face sentences that are uniquely severe among constitutional democracies. Supporters insist that severe mandatory sentences guarantee serious drug offenders are put behind bars, offer prosecutors leverage for securing cooperation from drug traffickers, deter prospective offenders, and enhance community safety and well-being. Opponents point to data showing the laws have had little impact on the demand for or the availability of drugs. Instead, they have resulted in the unnecessary confinement of low-level nonviolent offenders (most of whom are poor African-Americans and Hispanics), a staggering growth in prison populations, and a waste of public resources. Judges decry the excessive and unfair sanctions that mandatory sentencing laws can require in individual cases. Missing from the debate over drug sentencing laws, however, has been a critique of their human rights impact.

    Sentences for drug offenders in New York state are among the most punitive in the country. A person convicted of a single sale of two ounces of cocaine faces the same mandatory prison term as a murderer--fifteen years to life. Long prison sentences may be proportionate for traffickers who run large and violent drug distribution enterprises. But in New York, the vast majority of
    drug offenders sentenced to prison are nonviolent minor drug dealers or persons only marginally involved in drug  transactions--people who make $20 sales on the streets, one-time couriers carrying drugs for a small fee, addicts who sell to finance their own habits. For these people, even a few years of imprisonment can be disproportionately severe punishment that
    violates the inherent dignity of persons, the right to be free of cruel and degrading punishment, and the right to liberty. Such sentences contravene the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

    Human Rights Watch does not challenge the public's decision to use criminal sanctions in its effort to curtail drug abuse and drug trafficking. But the use of the criminal sentences is subject to important human rights constraints. To be consistent with internationally recognized human rights standards, criminal sanctions must be both humane and proportional to the gravity of the offense.

    Sources and references

    Thanks to Jörg Fachner for sending me the information on this page.

    Campaign for the Restoration and Regulation of Hemp —

    Freedom Forum on Weedstock Supression —

    Who Goes to Prison for Drug Offenses? A Rebuttal to the New York State District Attorneys Association

    Official Data Reveal Most New York Drug Offenders Are Nonviolent. From HRW Backgrounder, January 1999

    Drug Control Strategies Must Respect Human Rights - A Statement by Human Rights Watch to the U.N. General Assembly
    in a Special Session Devoted to the Fight Against Narcotic Drugs (June 1998)

    Cruel And Usual: Disproportionate Sentences for New York Drug Offenders. HRW Report, March 1997

    Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs HRW Report, June 2000 and

    War on Drugs: Focus on Human Rights —

    Drugs and Human Rights in the United States —