You’ve probably heard of the “lockup quotas” buried in some private prison contracts. They essentially penalize the government for empty prison cells, which helps jack up America’s world-leading incarceration rate, even as crime rates continue to fall.
Well, there’s a new private prison industry trend that’s just as alarming.
Alabama’s Department of Corrections is considering signing so-called “public-private partnerships” to build three new mega-prisons. Rather than using traditional bond financing — or reforming laws to send less people to prison — the state would borrow nearly $1 billion from private investors. In return, those investors would charge the government expensive lease payments to use the prisons for the next 50 years.
Alabama isn’t alone. In 2017, Kansas hired CoreCivic to design, finance, build, and maintain a new prison in Lansing, despite the state’s own auditors saying using bonds would be cheaper. (Governor Laura Kelly, elected after the deal was signed, says the state was “hoodwinked.”)
That’s right, the two biggest players in prison public-private partnerships are CoreCivic and GEO Group, the massive, publicly traded private prison corporations helping the Trump administration violently crackdown on asylum-seeking and immigration. They’re in the real estate business now, and they want to make it easier for governments to build more cages to lock people up in.
As you might expect, embedding the profit motive in running a prison is concerning. Alabama likely won’t be able to repurpose the buildings, even if its incarcerated population significantly declines. To justify the expensive lease payments, state lawmakers might feel pressure to keep the prisons full — for the next 50 years.
In other words, not only are public-private partnerships (for prisons, highways, water systems, etc.) more expensive, less transparent, and less democratic than traditional procurement methods, but they also introduce incentives that run counter to the public interest.
Another example: some public-private partnership contracts used to build public schools prohibit the community from using the buildings for childcare, sports leagues, and other after-hours uses.
Alabama already has the fifth highest incarceration rate in the nation. And just this April, the U.S. Department of Justice alleged the violent conditions in the state’s prisons violate the Constitution.
It shouldn’t take last ditch, pro bono legal representation to free the many Alabama prisoners who shouldn’t be locked up, as Carla Crowder of the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice recently wrote about in the New York Times.
Building mega-prisons instead of incarcerating less people will only make things worse, especially using public-private partnerships.
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