For Profit Prisons, a Field of Nightmares

Kevin Rutledge on December 18, 2015

Caroline Isaacs, AFSC Arizona Program Director, was on a recent Iowa speaking tour titled “Who Profits from Immigrant Detention and Mass Incarceration?” on Dec. 7-9. She educated first-in-the-nation caucus goers about the problematic private prison industry and immigrant detention centers, encouraging them to question presidential candidates about these issues leading up to the Iowa Caucus on February 1.

“If you build it, they will come,” said Caroline Isaacs, AFSC Arizona Program Director, quoting a famous line from the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams,” which was filmed in Iowa.  But Caroline wasn’t talking about baseball, she was talking about the growth of private prisons in her home state of Arizona.

“It’s just not right to get paid for depriving human beings from their liberty,” Caroline explained to groups in Cedar Falls, Marshalltown, Des Moines, and Ames during a recent speaker tour titled “Who Profits from Immigrant Detention and Mass Incarceration?”  Yet private companies own more than 130 prisons, including immigrant detention centers.

The government doesn’t save money by privatizing prisons, she explained, drawing on her 15 years of experience advocating for incarcerated individuals and their families, just and effective statewide criminal justice policy, and organizing against the proliferation of private prisons and immigrant detention centers.  To the contrary, her research indicates private prisons can be more costly to taxpayers, since the owners have to earn money for shareholders on top of operating expenses and what the government still needs to spend for contract administration.   Problems associated with prisons-for-profit include underpaid and undertrained staff, high staff turnover rates, violence, abuse, sexual assault, deficiencies of medical and mental health care, riots, escapes, and death, Caroline said.

For more than a year, AFSC has focused on the private prison industry as an example of “governing under the influence,” i.e. abuses to the public interest committed by major corporations with insider access to government officials.  In particular, AFSC has drawn attention to the federal budget provisions which mandates detention of 34,000 immigrants every day, with almost 60% of them held in private prisons owned by companies that spend millions of dollars a year on lobbying and campaign contributions.  In Iowa, we are encouraging folks to introduce a caucus resolution calling for the elimination of the detention quota.  Read more about the quota in our fact sheet.

Although Iowa does not have private prisons, mass incarceration affects everybody.  The U.S. is the world’s leading jailer with over 7 million people in the U.S. justice system (including probation and parole) and 2.3 million people in correctional facilities.  The private prison industry, which has lobbied for bills including three-strikes policies, mandatory minimums, and truth-in sentencing, is at the forefront of driving mass incarceration.

According to Detention Watch, 9 of out the 10 biggest ICE immigrant detention centers owned privately.  The quota for FY 2014 allocated $1,840,000,000 and added up to 400,000 people in federal detention.  Corrections Corporation of America, the biggest private prison corporation, spent over $10 million lobbying from 2008 to 2014. 

“Federal spending on immigration enforcement now surpasses all other federal law enforcement activities combined, including the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service, US Marshals, and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms,” Isaacs said. 

“And recidivism is good for business,” she continued, expressing how the mission of corrections should be to “correct.”  But private prisons have experienced recidivism rates from 40-60%. 

“How can you expect to see any other business survive with a 40-60% failure rate?”

(Caroline Isaacs with GUI volunteer and staff holding banners outside a Hillary Clinton event, talking with attendees about corporate money driving policy in Urbandale, IA on Dec. 9)

To learn more about other political contributions and connections between private prisons and government, read our new GUI white paper The Role of For-Profit Prison Corporations Shaping U.S. Immigrant Detention & Deportation Policies.  Read Isaac’s latest report titled The Treatment Industrial Complex: How For-Profit Prison Corporations are Undermining Efforts to Treat and Rehabilitate Prisoners for Corporate Gain.  

See some photos from the Iowa tour and how the presidential candidates have answered AFSC questions about private prisons

Visit our newsroom to see Caroline Isaacs' media appearances in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Quad Cities Times, Marshalltown’s Times-Republican, and KHOI Ames community radio station.  


Kevin Rutledge

Kevin Rutledge AFSC Governing Under the Influence Presidential Campaign Project

Kevin Rutledge is the Grassroots Education Coordinator with AFSC’s Presidential Campaign Project in Iowa.  Kevin has deep family roots in Quaker activism for peace and social justice.  A graduate from Iowa State University in Sociology and Criminal Justice, his previous work includes: United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) organizer, Public Citizen online organizer to overturn Citizens United, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, and a youth residential treatment facility.  Kevin hopes to one day return to Brazil and live by the beach.

“What the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” – Napoleon Hill .