By Caroline Isaacs, AFSC-AZ Program Director |
This week, in a move that seemed to shock even themselves, the Denver City Council voted against renewing two multimillion-dollar contracts with GEO Group and CoreCivic, the two largest private prison companies in the U.S. What may surprise many is that the contracts in question were not for managing state prisons or immigrant detention facilities, though both corporations have plenty of those. The canceled contracts were for operating halfway houses in the Denver metro area.
As many states have embraced various levels of sentencing reform, there has been a marked downward trend in the need for new prisons, which has significantly threatened the profit margins of big private prison companies. In fact, since 2010, the major private prison companies have begun to make a pivot in their “business model,” changing their corporate structures, growth strategies, and communications from a focus on prison operations to providing “community corrections” programs like electronic monitoring, re-entry services, and operating day reporting centers for people on probation and parole. GEO Group added an entire division called GEOCare, and now advertises itself as “the Global Leader in Evidence-Based Rehabilitation.” While Corrections Corporation of America went so far as to literally rebrand to CoreCivic, removing any reference to its stake in prisons completely.
For-profit prison companies are essentially hijacking the national movement to end mass incarceration.
In the last few years, both CoreCivic and GEO Group rapidly expanded their holdings in community corrections by aggressively acquiring smaller companies with existing contracts. This trend has been particularly true in Colorado, where, for example, CoreCivic acquired contracts for seven reentry facilities when it bought out Correctional Management, Inc. Additionally, GEO Group’s acquisition of Community Education Centers in 2017 added six Colorado facilities to their portfolio for a grand total of 10 reentry/electronic monitoring programs across the state.
Why are these contracts a bad deal for cities?
Fortunately, it appears that the folks on the Denver City Council had the good sense to see that, for all the lip service they pay to rehabilitation and reducing recidivism, these companies apply the same faulty business model that made them terrible at running prisons and detention centers.
Private operators make their profits by winning contracts. They win contracts by being the lowest bidder, yet at the same time, they must provide a service while still generating revenue for their company. As a result, these corporations are notoriously tight-fisted when it comes to their facilities’ construction, amenities, programs and services, and, most significantly, staffing.
These companies often pay staff less than states or the federal government. They offer minimal staff training, which can leave employees frustrated and unprepared to handle crises. As a result, facilities tend to have very high turnover rates and are chronically understaffed.
Essentially, the combination of low pay, understaffing, and having a “green” workforce is a recipe for unstable and dangerous facilities. There are myriad examples of disastrously mismanaged halfway houses, facilities rife with drugs and violence, escapes, horrendous abuse and unconstitutional conditions in facilities run by these corporations.
The State of Pennsylvania has reported a high rate of recidivism of those who cycle through private reentry facilities. A 2013 study by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PDOC) found that prisoners sent to halfway houses were actually more likely to re-offend than those released directly from prison. According to the study, 67% of prisoners sent to transitional facilities were rearrested or returned to prison within three years, compared to 60% of offenders released to the streets. The PDOC Secretary stated, “The focus has been on filling up beds. It hasn’t been on producing good outcomes.”
Despite their track records of poor performance, these corporations continue to expand their contracts. They are infinitely better resourced, politically connected, and more influential than the struggling community-based non-profits that have provided these services faithfully in our cities for decades. In a competitive government bidding process, such small fish simply can’t offer the dirt-cheap bottom line that wins contracts.
Every city in the US should line up behind Denver and do the same.
Even states that have been notoriously resistant to privatization of state prisons are slowly being infiltrated by these same companies as they gobble up contracts for everything else. Case in point: A quick search reveals that GEO Group currently operates a total of 37 facilities in California. None of these are state prisons, but they do include jails, as well as residential reentry centers and day reporting centers.
New York state has no private prisons; however, it does have two GEO Group facilities (one immigrant detention center and one federal community re-entry center), as well as a total of five facilities now owned by CoreCivic through its recent acquisition of Rocky Mountain Offender Management Systems. You can bet that this is just the beginning.
Both companies offer a handy interactive map of their facilities:
Take a look—you may be surprised at the extent of their presence in your city or state.
So, what instead?
Too often in the current discussion, these under-performing, predatory companies are presented as the only alternative to the continued growth of mass incarceration. Because they are the ones with the contracts, to criticize the companies’ performance is interpreted as advocating against reentry altogether.
The crux of the problem is that there are only two options being offered: jail or privatized reentry centers. But we know that halfway houses and other transition programs grounded in local communities with a track record of transparency, accountability and effectiveness are the best possible investment for cities looking to expand reentry. All that’s required is a level playing field.
While the marketing of the for-profit residential reentry model touts a goal of reducing recidivism, the reality is that many companies are using reform principles to widen their hold on the criminal justice market. Without proper accountability or determined desired outcomes, the residential reentry service model cannot provide the rehabilitation it promises.
For-profit prison companies are essentially hijacking the national movement to end mass incarceration. They’re selling whatever governments are buying; right now, that’s community corrections and alternatives to incarceration. But in criminal justice, as in most things, we get what we pay for.