Colorado is Giving $2 Million to a Private Prison Company for Nonexistent Inmates

A recent article in the Denver Post discusses how difficult life is for people on parole from the Colorado prison system. While most would hope that those on parole are able to stay out of prison, there is one entity that could not care less: the private prison industry. Whether the parolees stay out or return to prison, these corporations are going to get their money. 

In fact, Colorado will spend $2 million of taxpayer money because it has a deal with a private prison corporation to pay for at least 90% occupancy so even if the inmate are not there; Coloradans pay. This information can be found in a new publication released by In the Public Interest titled “Criminal: How Lockup Quotas and ‘Low-Crime Taxes’ Guarantee Profits for Private Prison Corporations.”

Private prison corporations like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) understand that they want their inmate population like they want their profits: big. In a society that claims to be trying to reduce crime, it does not make sense that privatized prisons should be making money. Because private prisons are run by businessmen, they have figured out a perverse way to profit. These businesses make money the old-fashioned way: They contract for it.

When jurisdictions contract with a private prison corporation to run their correctional facilities, these governments must promise to keep the jail or prison population at a certain capacity. If the prison is not filled to the capacity for which the parties contracted, the government must pay the corporation as if those beds were filled.

This would seem to be counterintuitive for a society. Logic dictates that the state would want a lower crime rate but it also would not want to waste taxpayer money by paying for unused beds. Logic often does not have a place in billion dollar businesses. These private prison corporations claim to be cost savers for the state (a claim which is disputed). If there is no inmate that the prison has to provide the minimal care including food, medical care, and protection in the form of corrections officers, then the empty bed the state is paying for is pure profit.

I have also discussed the incredible amount of money that the CCA has spent on lobbying. Naturally, the private prison companies lobby for tougher laws and encourage more incarceration. For example, according to a 2012 report by the Justice Policy Institute private prison corporations lobbied for “three-strikes” laws which are designed to put habitual felons in prison for life and “truth in sentencing” laws which ensure that once incarcerated, a person spends more time in prison before parole eligibility. Even though there is evidence to show that “three-strikes” laws deter crime or make society safer, private prisons are not in the business of making states safer, but rather keeping their prisons full.

Unfortunately, states are contracting with the private prison industry and letting them hedge their bets. By guaranteeing that they will ensure that if the correctional facility maintains a certain capacity or it will pay for the empty beds, states are taking away almost all of the risk for prison profiteers. 

By encouraging tougher laws and adding to the mass incarceration problem in the U.S., private prison companies are not making the streets safer, they are just making themselves richer.     

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Chris Hill

Chris is currently the Director of the Education & Law Project of the North Carolina Justice Center. Before joining the NCJC, Chris was the State Strategies Coordinator with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project. While at the ACLU, Chris engaged in public education and legislative advocacy. Chris has also worked as a Supervising Attorney for Legal Services of New Jersey, where he sought to remove legal barriers impeding prisoners' successful re-entry back into society. In addition to extensive litigation experience, Chris has spent a great deal of his legal career, including his time as a National Association for Public Interest Law (now Equal Justice Works) Equal Justice Fellow, conducting outreach to educate the community about legal issues. Chris received his B.A. and his J.D. from Rutgers University. His posts do not reflect the opinion of his current employer.

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