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The number of prisoners in America is growing, along with the wallets of private prison corporations  

Article by Nicole Esplin

The history of a prison nation is a little unclear, but it is hard not to question the impact that the increasing number of private prisons has on a growing number of incarcerated citizens.

According to  The Atlantic, the United States doubled its number of people incarcerated in the 1980s, and currently incarcerates 445 per 100,000 people, a large increase from the early 1970’s number of 110 incarcerations per 100,000 people.

Expenditures: Inmates v. Students

This increase may be a result of an increasing number of for-profit  private prisons.  Ten years ago, there were only five private prisons in the country.  Now, there are 100 that house a total of 62,000 inmates.  There wasn’t one particular event that drove the number of prisoners to increase other than the advent of private prisons and the realization by owners that they could profit from the system.

According to  The Center for Global Research, private prisons aim to control the system by paying inmates as little as $0.25 per hour and demanding the inmates either work or be locked up in isolation cells.  To keep inmates in cells longer, “corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners’ work lobby for longer sentences, in order to expand their workforce. The system feeds itself,” a study by the Progressive Labor Party said.

Most recently,  The Huffington Post reported that after the state of Arizona failed to supply enough prisoners for a private in-state prison owned by prison giant Management & Training Corp., the company threatened to sue the state of Arizona for not incarcerating enough people.

“A line in their contract guaranteed that the prison would remain 97 percent full,” The Huffington Post reported.  “They argued they had lost nearly $10 million from reduced inmate population.”

Arizona state officials renegotiated the deal, and settled the dispute by paying $3 million for empty beds.

Roy Obrien, a former Florida Corrections auditor and halfway house owner, agrees that the power of prisons in the United States has become out of control.

“Prisons in the United States are an industry,” Obrien said.  “Whenever there is money in something for profit, you lose sense of morality.  We have more incarcerated people than any other country, and it dates back to the 80s and the drug wars.  Reagan worked to remodel the prisons to benefit the war on drugs, but now the prison business has turned into a real good profitable business.”

After looking into the financials of prison power-houses, it is understandable why the companies are so focused in locking up prisoners every year.  According to  The Geo Group, Inc., a private prison company that runs 65 correctional and detention facilities, it cost the company over $205 million to operate its prisons in 2012.  Compare that to Geo Group’s total revenue for 2012, which was over $1.4 billion, an increase of 40 percent from 2008.

And Geo Group, Inc. isn’t the only prison giant.  According to Morningstar Financial’s report on Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the total compensation for company CEO Damon Hininger was over $2.7 million in 2012.

Investing in CCA when the company went public in 1997 would have returned about 63.7 percent to date in 2013.  That’s not a bad rate of return for those looking to make some money, but at what point does this become unethical equity?  It is inarguable that some prisoners should be locked up for the safety of other citizens, but how did the prison system become so dependent on this stream of income?

Change may be in sight for those locked away, as  Attorney General Eric Holder is calling for prison reform and a dock in minimum mandatory sentencing laws, which are a large part of putting prisoners away.

Obrien is hopeful that the United States can improve the prison system by paying attention Holder’s opinions and watching how other countries handle prisons.

“Hopefully Holder’s statement trickles down and we drop minimum mandatory sentencing,” Obrien said.

Obrien also urges Americans to take a look at other countries' prison systems, and research how the United States could do the prison system better.

“One of the most significant countries with a progressive look on drugs is Portugal,” Obrien said.  “Basically, Portugal was spending too much money and not getting a return on Prison labor.  They decided to look at drugs differently and pretty much decriminalized drugs.  They put money in rehab centers and mental health hospitals.  It is probably one of the most progressive countries in dealing with the drug problem.”

But, until the United States private prison corporations start losing money on prisoners, Portugal’s model may not be tempting to decision makers.  For prisoners, Eric Holder’s minimum mandatory sentencing reform is the first step to shorter prison sentences and less time working for prison corporations.