Corrections, Inc.: Cheney and the For-Profit Prison Connection

Dear Friend and Reader,

“And some say that God doesn’t exist.”

That was the reaction of Andrew Sullivan, the conservative columnist for The Atlantic to today’s breaking story about the Cheney indictment. I doubt all conservatives will be as relieved.

Dick Cheney and Alberto Gonzales (among others) were indicted by a grand jury for “engaging in an organized criminal activity related to the vice president’s investment in the Vanguard Group, which holds financial interests in the private prison companies running the federal detention centers.” The indictment awaits a signature by a judge.

Regional reporters have had their eyes on the growing system of for-profit prisons that have popped up like summer dandelions all along the Mexican border with the United States. This includes prisons in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona where most immigrants pass across the border — legally or illegally. But with our eyes locked on Iraq and our see-sawing economy, most Americans have lost interest in the fate of thousands of imprisoned illegal immigrants.

As this story develops, you can be sure Americans will have to examine the failure of yet another American institution — our justice system and it’s practical adjunct, prisons. Willacy Country, where the grand jury deliberated the evidence for the indictment, lies at the far southern tip of Texas, just a few miles from Brownsville and the Mexican border.

The geography is important because Willacy County’s local troubles gives us a microcosmic picture of two persistent problems of the American justice system — immigration and incarceration. Immigration law was supposed to be one of Bush’s priorities in his first administration. He was supposed to be on good terms with then Mexican President Vicente Fox. What happened? September 11th happened and national security trumped regional, or rather continental, welfare. Gone was the hope for comprehensive immigration reform that benefited both our neighbor to the south and us. Instead we built for-profit prisons by the hundreds and herded illegal border-crossers (men, women and children) into these permanent holding pens.

The profit angle of these businesses isn’t appealing, either. Privatization was originally sold in the mid-1980s as a means to reduce the costs of incarcerating a growing population of prisoners. But as laws changed and the prison population grew, profits shrank. Back in 2001 (when John Ashcroft was Attorney General) a Department of Justice monograph, “Emerging Issues On Privatized Prisons,” concluded that “rather than the projected 20 percent savings from privatization, the average savings was only about one percent, and most of that was achieved through lower labor costs.”

If money isn’t on the table here, at least there’s power. As more details emerge, a tale of small-town politics and internecine intrigue, coupled with conveniently distant DC power players, suggests this story is going to rival the most cynical of political/criminal thrillers. Here’s why: companies like Corrections Corporation of America specifically target money-hungry small towns for their prison projects.

At first this seems like a win-win situation for everyone. Small towns get jobs and a new industry, and companies like CCA get inexpensive land and labor. But the hand that feeds, also beats; small town becomes company town, and with the local economy at risk should their biggest employer leave, no one wants to challenge the corporate sugar daddy. Those who do, pay for it with their reputations and careers.

Cheney and the rest seem far from these local political machinations, but their distant power posts and their ability to influence contractors and lawmakers at the heart of the for-profit prison business means the indictment’s conflict-of-interest questions add up to a whole lot more than just investing in an industry they hoped would turn a profit and add a little to the retirement kitty.

With Cheney’s name at the head of this indictment, perhaps more of us will get curious about our “privatized” prison industry.

Additional links of interest:

The Truth About Private Prisons, by Jenni Gainsborough (2003, alter.net)

A regional reporter’s view of the Cheney story: the narcosphere.

Corrections, a documentary about the return of for-profit prisons.

Two leaders in “privatized correctional and detention management” (a.k.a. for-profit prisons):

The GEO Group

Corrections Corporation of America

Yours & truly,

Shanna Philipson

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