Congress must stop private prisons from receiving tax breaks

Instead of giving tax cuts to the hard-working middle-class, Republicans in Congress will deliver presents this holiday season mostly to large corporations, the ultra-wealthy, and perhaps worst of all, the private prison industry. That’s right, once again this year private prison executives will have their stockings stuffed full with tax breaks from the federal government.

Private-prisons are a stain on our broken criminal justice system.  A 2016 Department of Justice report found that for-profit prisons had higher rates of assault, lockdowns, contraband confiscations and instances of inmate disciplines when compared to their government-run counterparts. The DOJ also found several examples of improper—and in some cases egregious—housing practices.  Currently, 60,000 former detainees are suing Geo Group claiming they were forced to do labor under threat of solitary confinement. With this lawsuit ongoing, the federal government paid Geo Group $664 million for two new prison contracts in Florida this past May.

ADVERTISEMENT
Since 2013, two of the largest and wealthiest private prison corporations, Geo Group and CoreCivic, have paid less in taxes by taking advantage of an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) loophole. Using restructuring gimmicks and legal ambiguities, these two companies wiggled their way into qualifying as Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), even though REITs were not intended to include corporate-run private prisons who receive massive contracts from the federal government.   

REITs were created in the 1960s to enable small investors to generate real estate income and spur community development.  Since then companies likeCommunity Healthcare Trust have used the REIT designation to help finance real estate leased to rural hospitals. Senior Housing Properties Trust uses the designation to own and operate senior living centers.  Given their historical benefit to local communities, REITs receive tax advantages in the IRS code, including paying no income tax.

As REITS, these prison companies are exempt from paying federal corporate income taxes. This atrocious misdeed led me to introduce the Ending Tax Breaks for Private Prisons Act, in coordination with Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSenators debate new business deduction, debt in tax law hearing Trump’s CIA pick facing brutal confirmation fight Trump struggles to get new IRS team in place MORE who introduced the same bill in the Senate.  Our bill would prevent private prison corporations from receiving tax breaks on the American worker’s dime.

This is exactly the type of loophole that we should close. This is also exactly the type of glaring loophole that Republicans will leave propped open.

As private prisons prioritize punishment over rehabilitation and treat their inmates as commodities, they will continue to receive tax breaks from the federal government because the Republican tax plan fails to address this flaw. The Republican bill does cut taxes for corporations and the super-rich, eliminate crucial itemizations that help middle-class families, and jeopardize healthcare for millions of Americans. It also further entrenches the prison-industrial complex in our society.

I attempted to introduce this bill in the form of an amendment to the GOP tax bill, but Republicans closed the process and disallowed any amendments from being considered.

In recent years, private prisons have seen their values soar.  Geo Group and CoreCivic do not only operate prisons in the US, but they also own and operate detention centers used for incarcerating, detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants.  Following the election of anti-immigrant, pro-detention Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans hold on to Arizona House seat Dems win majority in New York Senate, but won't control it Mulvaney to bankers: Campaign donations will help limit consumer bureau's power MOREGeo Group’s stock value rose 80%, and CoreCivic’s grew 120%.  These two companies have a bright future in the commodification of our fatally flawed justice system—at least for another three years.

It’s shameful that this administration and Republicans look out for private prison owners and not those imprisoned or detained. The over incarceration of Americans will continue to feed the prison-industrial complex and those who profit from others’ suffering and misfortune; this administration and Republicans will remain complicit in perpetuating this unfair system. 

That is, unless we do something about it.

Meeks represents New York's 5th District.