Private Prisons: Profiting From Families, Controlling Inmates’ Fates

Jan 20, 2016 | Justice


While we’ve heard plenty about Big Oil, the gun lobby, and Big Pharma throughout this 2016 Presidential race, few have been talking about another highly influential industry: private prisons. According to ProPublica, private prisons in the United States grew by 37% between 2002-2009. In total, there are now 130 private prisons with approximately 157,000 inmate beds. While the United States comprises 5% of the world’s population, it is home to 25% of the world’s prisoners. It may be no surprise then that the private prison lobby is the largest novelty lobbying group in the United States: $25 million is spent each year and revenues of up to $3.3 billion are reported annually. The two largest prison companies, the GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America, have given $10 million to candidates since 1989, including one 2016 Presidential hopeful, Marco Rubio.

Annual increase in private prison populations

What’s the impact of this growing industry on those who are imprisoned and their families? Private prison revenues are generated by taxpayers and off the backs of prisoners’ families through lockup quotas, prison commissaries, phone calls, and charges for visitation and parole or probation fees. When debt payments aren’t made, inmates don’t receive money sent by their loved ones, and those that can’t pay their parole or probation fees are typically locked up again. This raises the question: Has the U.S. gone too far in allowing private prisons to control the fates of inmates?

Number of people housed in private prisons
Prisoners under Contracts

An estimated two-thirds of private prison contracts require state and local governments to keep the prisons filled at a set rate, usually 90%. In the event that the suggested rate is not met, taxpayers are required to pay for the difference. There is even a lockup quota at the federal level, in which Congress requires at least 34,000 illegal immigrants to remain detained daily as part of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention budget. The quota has grown steadily each year despite the fact that the population of illegal immigrants has remained steady at 11.2 million since the Great Recession.

While in prison, prisoners have to buy basic supplies from prison commissaries. Though many prisoners work, they can’t afford to provide for themselves, since they usually make 2 cents an hour. Families often pitch in, but providing money for living supplies comes at a cost to relatives. In states like Florida, commissary sales and other transactions are managed through the Department of Corrections, providing contracts to vendors, who offer to pay the highest commission to the state. For example, the Keefe Group’s 2013-2016 contract with Florida’s Department of Corrections states, “the Department will make an award, by Region, to the responsive, responsible bidder submitting the highest percentage commission.”

If an inmate owes the state fees or victims’ compensation, he or she won’t see any money sent by a loved one until the debt is paid off. In the 2013 New York state court case People v. Cympethy Neal, Neal’s debt resulted from a mandatory $300 surcharge, $50 DNA fee and a $25 crime victim assistance fee. Neal pursued deferring payments because she was only making $6 every 2 weeks in prison wages, but the court ruled that Neal was not in compliance with the standard hardship “over and above the ordinary hardship suffered by other indigent inmates”. As a result, the money sent by family and friends was deducted up to 100%, leaving her with 20% of her wages, a mere 62 cents per week.  This sum proved insufficient for buying necessary hygiene items or stamps to send letters to her children.

Financial Burden of Phone Calls Home

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently voted to reduce the cost of prisoners’ phone calls to between 11  to 22 cents per minute, preventing private prisons from charging $14 a minute. As FCC Commissioner  Mignon Clyburn states, phone call charges place an “incredible burden” on the families of 2 million prisoners in the U.S. The FCC will now require annual reports to monitor compliance. Companies such as Securus Technologies are threatening to organize a joint legal action against the FCC with other companies.

State Departments of Corrections make a commission from prisoner phone calls, arguably a kickback from the exclusive contracts given to phone companies, who then pass the cost to the prisoners’ families to make hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Some states have banned this, resulting in significant drops in costs. Sheriffs who depend on commissions for their budgets are threatening to get rid of phone access.

One in three families ends up in debt due to the cost of phone calls and visits. Families such as Lillie Branch-Kennedy’s have to make tough decisions: “I have spent close to $25,000 dollars, maybe closer to 30,000 over the past 14 years, just trying to stay in touch with my son. There is no reason prison agencies and phone companies should be profiting off phone companies like mine, forcing us to choose between putting food on the table and keeping in touch.”

There are currently 2.7 million children with a parent in prison. Twelve-year-old Kevin Reese III, who traveled from Minnesota to DC to see the FCC vote on the new rule, is one of them. “The only way I know my dad is over the phone,” reports Think Progress. “We talk about sports, music, school, girls — things me and my mom can’t talk about. It doesn’t feel good when he can’t call.”

The ones who stand to benefit the most from the new ruling are prisoners whose rate of recidivism will decrease significantly.

Incurring Costs over Virtual Visits, Parole and Probation

Private prison companies are changing the way loved ones see inmates with 70% of contracts requiring that video visitation replace in-person visitation, even though sometimes prisoners and families may just be a room away. Securus Technologies, which has contracts in 2,600 correctional facilities, provides video-visitation services. The Washington Post reports that this is just another way families are incurring costs: What was once free visitation now costs family members about a dollar per minute to use the video system. 

Families continue paying even after a loved one is out of prison in parole and probation fees collected by private companies in 44 states. In many states, parole and probation are taken away, along with driver’s licenses if prisoners are unable to pay; instead, they are expected to pay with prison time that ultimately generates profits.

Time to Pay Attention to the Private Prison Lobby

The rate at which the private sector has taken over the U.S. prison system is alarming. Not only has the private federal prison population doubled between 2000 and 2010, but the industry has also become the largest novelty lobbying group, influencing lawmakers and profiting mostly from state contracts and taxpayers. The United States has gone too far in allowing private prisons to control the fate of inmates and their families, given that one in three families ends up in debt due to phone calls and visits, forcing families to choose between putting food on the table and keeping in touch. While the recent FCC regulation is a small, positive change for prisoners and their families, the United States has failed to address the burden of lockup quotas, prison commissaries, charges for visitation and parole or probation fees.

Cover photo source: AP/Charlie Riedel.