Eliminate Private Prisons: Profit Has No Place in the Criminal Justice System

Private companies are profiting off the imprisonment of almost four thousand Coloradans. While 14,000 inmates are currently being held at Colorado Department of Corrections’ (CDOC) 22 state correctional facilities, approximately 20% of our prison population are being held at three private prisons. These three facilities are owned by large, for-profit corporations. By allowing profit into the criminal justice system, Colorado has diminished the public’s faith and confidence in the integrity of that system.

Private prisons emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, when more restrictive drug laws and sentencing rules caused the prison population to surge. They stepped in with offers of a quicker, cheaper process for building and maintaining prisons (using non-union employees and offering fewer rehabilitative programs). States including Colorado, signed contracts that guaranteed these corporations a minimum number of prisoners, under a standard rate of payment per inmate. And between 2015–2016, Colorado taxpayers paid more than $77 million to private prison corporations.

Because of the inherent conflict of interest between Colorado’s Constitutional duties to house and rehabilitate prisoners, and the corporate goal of maximizing profit, private prisons should have no part in our criminal justice system. The custody and rehabilitation of inmates should no longer be outsourced in this manner. As a prosecutor for the past 20 years, I strongly believe that a profit-based prison system completely undermines the mission, integrity, and fairness of our justice system.

Rather, prison sentences should punish the offender,; strengthen our public safety, and provide convicted felons with an opportunity to turn his or her life around so as to eventually rejoin society. The overarching goal is for the prisoner to never re-enter the correctional system. However, private prisons have a perverse incentive to house criminals for longer periods of time and to set them up for recidivism — to turn inmates into repeat customers.

Two of Colorado’s private prisons — Bent County Correctional Facility and Crowley County Correctional Facility — are owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a publicly traded company, headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. To put the profit motive of private prisons into perspective, consider that the Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections earns an annual salary of approximately $200,000 and the state prison system, as a whole, makes no profit. In contrast, last year, the CEO of CCA made over $3 million in compensation. For just the second quarter of 2016, CCA reported corporate profits of $57.6 million.

In 2016, the federal government abolished the use of private prisons and stated that, “[Private prisons] simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and . . . they do not maintain the same level of safety and security. The rehabilitative service that the [Federal Bureau of Prisons] provides, such as educational programs and job training, have proved difficult to replicate and outsource — and these services are essential to reducing recidivism and improving public safety.”

Colorado’s private prisons have the same shortcomings. In fact, the state spent $9 million in 2012 to bail out a failing private prison in Kit Carson County. By 2016, when the same prison continued to prove unprofitable for CCA, the legislature refused another bailout and the prison closed. Other private prisons in Colorado have remained profitable only by accepting inmates from other states, a practice that has created safety issues for Colorado’s prison population. CDOC spent almost $800,000 last year on a unit that exists only to monitor the private prisons. And according to a 2016 CDOC report, these private state prisons are not meeting their mandated requirements to provide inmates with work programs, and show lower success rates for inmate academic, mental health, substance abuse and pre-release programs.

Private prisons frequently exist in Colorado’s rural communities and are a welcome, needed source of local employment. To protect these jobs, communities become beholden to these corporations, even though private prisons — including some in Colorado — often prove unprofitable and eventually close.

Our state legislature recently granted the CDOC’s request for $10.6 million to lease one of these empty private prisons to house an unexpected increase in inmates. Earlier this summer, the Joint Budget Committee of the legislature denied a similar request, saying that the state should just re-open a private prison under private management to handle the overflow of inmates. The Committee has it backwards.

Instead of getting further into bed with the private prison corporations, we should be looking for ways to transfer these facilities to CDOC control. Getting out of the private prison business does not have to mean shutting down these facilities. But we must get the notion of profit out of the equation. We would not tolerate profit incentives for judges, public defenders, or prosecutors; we should not do so for prisons.

Visit www.michaelforag.com to learn more about Michael Dougherty

Our elected officials and the agencies they supervise should be responsible for criminal justice in Colorado. These duties should not be outsourced to private corporations that answer to shareholders, not voters. How a society treats its prisoners is a measure of its integrity. A prison system should be focused on public safety, prison safety, rehabilitation, medical and mental health treatment, and reduced recidivism. When the mission of some of our facilities is tied to the corporate bottom line, it is our state’s integrity that ultimately is compromised. There is no place for profit in the criminal justice system. We can and must do better. As Attorney General, I will help lead the fight to ban private prisons.