Tim Murphy digs into the big business of the private prison industry over at Mother Jones. He zeroes in on Rick Perry who took steps to help close the state’s $27 billion deficit last year by pushing for the privatization of the Texas prison healthcare network:
Private prisons are a big business in Texas, where the combination of federal immigration policies and one of the nation’s largest inmate populations has led to a boom in construction over the last two decades. As governor, Perry, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, has supported privatizing everything from public lands to highways, but according to Scott Henson, a criminal-justice watchdog who runs the blog Grits for Breakfast, the governor had remained largely quiet on the prisons issue—until this year.
That coincided with an influx of campaign contributions from private-prison executives and lobbyists, among them his former top aide, Michael Toomey, a political powerbroker who represents the nation’s largest private corrections contractor, Corrections Corporation of America. CCA, per its website, “provides health care services to male and female inmates and youthful offenders who are housed in local jails, detention facilities, and correctional institutions around the country.” (Toomey told Mother Jones he had not lobbied Perry’s office or the state Legislature on the prison health care plan; Perry’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)
Toomey, who had not contributed directly to any of the governor’s previous gubernatorial campaigns, opened up his wallet for two separate $10,000 donations to Perry two months before Election Day in 2010. Thomas Beasley, the founder of CCA, has given $17,000 to Perry’s campaigns over the last decade. Another private prison firm, the GEO Group, poured $15,000 into Perry’s 2010 reelection effort in 2010 through its eponymous political action committee. Luis Gonzalez, a GEO Group lobbyist, meanwhile, gave $50,000 to Perry’s reelection bid.
Read the whole thing. It’s an important insight into the ‘privatization’ schemes that take place all across America, and a clear illustration of the revolving door between private industry and government.
Here’s the problem with faux privatization: If all you do is take taxpayer money and give it to a private corporation to do a mandated public service like prison work, you’re not actually shrinking government. That’s just a ruse. All you’re actually doing is giving a monopoly rent to a private contractor who then goes about the same business the state would have provided. This is often referred to as “cronyism”.
Some services the state provides can actually be privatized. Imagine if the state provided snow shoveling services for all sidewalks. You could reasonably privatize this by deciding that the state would no longer provide the service and people would need to either shovel their own sidewalk or pay somebody else to do it. That’s real privatization. The government is out of the equation altogether.
This simply doesn’t work with prisons, for obvious reasons. No matter what, the state is responsible for locking people up. Thus any ‘privatization’ that occurs is simply the transfer of the provision of a government service (in this case, incarceration) to a private contractor. The contractor still operates with the full force of the law. In other words, it’s still government, just government-for-hire or for-profit government.
Profiting off of crime should make us uncomfortable, I think, especially when it involves pocketing taxpayer money.
There are times when it makes sense to use a private contractor. For instance, government buildings are typically built by private construction companies. It makes very little sense for governments to have their own construction outfit. But things like construction are services for the government rather than for the taxpayer. Furthermore, they’re temporary. A contractor building a prison is very different from a contractor actually running a prison. Incentives differ in important ways.
So when we talk about prison privatization, it’s important to remember that it’s not actually privatization at all. It’s just a way to transfer monopoly rents over to private companies.