Private prison corporations must not be allowed to hijack move to end mass incarceration

It’s no secret that the U.S. prison system is broken. Private prison corporations have turned incarceration into a business, creating a financial incentive to increase the prison population when all data on public safety outcomes point to the contrary — we need to shrink the size and scope of the criminal punishment system.

Known as the prison industrial complex, this model of profitizing mass incarceration has attracted criticism of late, with state policymakers enacting reforms to end mass incarceration by providing alternatives to prison like electronic monitoring and halfway houses.

But the companies behind the prison industrial complex are following the money. As mass incarceration falls out of favor, as evidenced by the Department of Justice’s recent decision to end the use of private prisons, the same corporations have expanded into the segment of the criminal punishment system known as community corrections, which encompasses electronic monitoring and halfway houses as well as day reporting centers and intermediate sanctions facilities. Essentially, these alternatives place individuals under state control without imprisoning them.

Nearly two-thirds of people involved in the criminal justice system (almost 5 million adults) are not held in prison or jail, but are instead monitored via community correction programs. To for-profit prison companies, this is a huge untapped market. In response, the same prison profiteers once committed to warehousing have begun to rebrand themselves as humanitarian providers of rehabilitation and treatment services.

This new “Treatment Industrial Complex” (TIC) threatens to undermine the good intentions of the national movement to end mass incarceration. By implementing the same profit-driven model, these companies are engaging in “net-widening” — attempting to ensnare those within the community corrections system and place them under increasing levels of state control for the longest period possible instead of rehabilitating and returning them to their families and communities.

The advent of surveillance technologies like GPS monitoring allow these corporations to bring increasing numbers of people under correctional control without the associated costs of probation officers, office visits or case management. Authorities can literally watch a person 24 hours per day, practically guaranteeing that even the most minor infractions will be discovered and punished, sometimes by extending the period of supervision — which adds up to more profit. Yet, according to an analysis in the Journal of Law and Policy, most individuals under electronic monitoring haven’t committed serious or violent offenses and were it not for monitoring may not be under any form of state control whatsoever.

These corporations make their money through volume — more people under supervision means more profit. Today GEO Group boasts that 20 percent of its profits stem from its “GEO Care,” division, which provides electronic monitoring, reentry programs and juvenile detention.

The profit motive is directly at odds with the best practices in the field of criminal justice. Cost cutting inevitably produces poor outcomes — understaffed facilities, rife with drugs and contraband, escapes and violence. True rehabilitation costs money up front, but saves it over the long term through reduced recidivism rates. When community corrections do not offer healthy, safe and accountable services, prison “alternatives” will only contribute more to the revolving door of recidivism.

The American Friends Service Committee’s new report, titled “Community Cages: Profitizing Community Corrections and Alternatives to Incarceration,” seeks to expose the abuses and profit-driven maneuvering that are shortchanging public safety. Policymakers ought to pay attention to the shift from unethical prisons to unethical prison “alternatives.” We must end mass incarceration; right now, the treatment industrial complex is simply rebranding it.

Caroline Isaacs is the Arizona program director for the American Friends Service Committee, where she organizes for criminal legal system reform and against the proliferation of for-profit prisons.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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