One of the most common critiques of for-profit prisons is that the industry’s goals of maximizing profits are at odds with the traditional goals of the criminal justice system, such as offender rehabilitation, reducing recidivism rates, increasing public safety, and lowering crime rates.
The GEO Group, Inc. (GEO), formerly known as Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, “is the world’s leading provider of correctional, detention, and community reentry services with 95 facilities, approximately 72,000 beds, and 18,000 employees around the globe,” says the corporate website. It is the second-largest for-profit prison operator in the United States, behind Corrections Corporation of America(CCA). The company was founded in 1984 and is headquartered in Boca Raton, Florida.
Since its founding nearly 30 years ago, GEO Group has profited from federal and state policies that have led to a dramatic rise in incarceration and detention in the United States — an increase of more than 500 percent over the past thirty years. As of 2011, around half of all prisoners in state facilities were there for nonviolent crimes, and half of inmates in federal prisons were serving time for drug offenses.
Studies have shown that for many offenses, incarceration has little if any impact on public safety, and that time in prison actually increases a person’s likelihood of committing more crimes.
According to the Justice Policy Institute: “While private prison companies may try to present themselves as just meeting existing ‘demand’ for prison beds and responding to current ‘market’ conditions, in fact they have worked hard over the past decade to create markets for their product.”
Although it claims that it has not lobbied for bills that extend or increase sentences for prisoners, for many years GEO Group participated in the task force of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that pushed bills that lengthened time in prison, such as so-called “truth-in-sentencing” and “three strikes” legislation, as models for states to adopt across the nation.
There is no doubt that GEO is raking in the big bucks for its executives. According to SEC filings, from 2008-2012 CEO George C. Zoley’s compensation was an eye-popping$22,315,704, almost all this garnered from U.S. taxpayers.
But what are the for-profit prisons delivering for these big bucks? GEO’s cost-cutting measures have been criticized for their relationship to inmate-on-inmate and guard-on-inmate (and vice-versa) violence which are many times a result of inadequate training, low pay, and high turnover of corrections staff as well as chronic understaffing. Further allegations of civil rights abuses and medical neglect have resulted in individual and class-action lawsuits brought against the company. For example, a spreadsheet of lawsuits complied by Private Corrections Working Group/Private Corrections Institute lists hundreds of lawsuits filed against GEO Group, many of which were settled before trial. The suits range from allegation of inmate death and abuse, excessive force, medical neglect as well as allegations of employment discrimination.
When comparing for-profit prisons with public, a nationwide study found that assaults on guards by inmates were 49 percent more frequent in private prisons than in government-run prisons. The same study revealed that assaults on fellow inmates were 65 percent more frequent in for-profit/private prisons. Another study concluded that, “Privately operated prisons appear to have systemic problems in maintaining secure facilities” concluding that for-profit/private prisons have significantly more escapes, homicides, assaults, and drug abuse compared to government-run prisons.
Many of these problems can be attributed to high employee turnover, inadequate training for officers, under-staffing, and miserable conditions experienced by the inmate population.
The supposed “cost savings” of for-profit prisons can result in inadequate medical care, abuse, and other civil rights violations against the persons incarcerated in these facilities. According to In the Public Interest, a comprehensive resource center on privatization and responsible contracting: “Incarceration for profit has caused many problems, as private companies fail to make decisions in the best interest of the inmates or the communities in which the prisons are located. Private prison companies have employed unqualified guards, resorted to excessive violence and cruelty to control inmates, and provided substandard medical care, resulting in unnecessary deaths. Prison privatization has led to numerous lawsuits and litigation, fines, and increased need for federal oversight, at great cost to taxpayers, communities, inmates and their families.”