In recent years the situation in American prisons has been more dire than ever. The country continues to be the world leader in incarcerating people, with some estimating that there are more people under correctional supervision "than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height." In states like California there have been multiple hunger strikes since 2011 to protest inhumane conditions in prisons.
However, things might be getting even worse. According to a report by In The Public Interest, it was found that contracts for private prisons contain occupancy guarantees (or "lockup quotas") ranging from 80 to 100%. To put it another way: The contracts guarantee that prisons will be filled at 80-100% of how many people they can hold, regardless of how many people actually committed crimes.
States like Louisiana and Oklahoma have some of the highest lockup quotas, with 96% and 98% respectively. In Arizona, private prisons are guaranteed an astonishing 100% occupancy.
Much of the effort has been conducted by the Corrections Corporation of America, which buys out and privatizes public prisons in exchange for these contracts. According to the report, the CCA has "spent $17.4 million in lobbying expenditures from 2002 through 2012" and "spent $1.9 million in political contributions" from around the same period, making this a hefty political investment.
Aside from the obvious profits for the private contractors, these quotas create a perverse incentive to harshly sentence people for minor crimes just to meet the quota requirements — in essence, to put more people in jail to keep private jails profitable.
There is a history of this happening before. In Pennsylvania two judges accepted kickbacks from a private juvenile detention center and, in exchange, filled the detention center by egregiously sentencing teenagers for petty crimes. While the Pennsylvania case was essentially bribery, there is nothing to prevent the states from legally imposing harsh sentences in order to fulfill prison requirements.
In a time when American prisons are already plagued by overcrowding and inhumane conditions, it seems absurd that some jails should profit off the situation getting worse.