The Private Prison Primer: A tale of two prison towns

MuckRock – by Beryl Lipton

Florence, Arizona, an hour’s drive southeast of Phoenix, is home to 10,000 people. Or maybe more like 25,000 people, depending on how you figure.

For what it’s worth, no less an authority than the U.S. Census Bureau choose the latter, including in their numbers as local Arizona residents the thousands of people in cells throughout the city. In fact, it’s how it counts inmates across the States, regardless of their actual state of origin. The discrepancy is just one variable in the matrix of how mass incarceration sets off ripple effects from individual to community to country whenever a prison comes to town. Particularly problematic are private prisons.  

With town cooperation necessary for everything from sewage to sales, the relationship between company and host encourages a new set of conditions beyond benefits like taxes or jobs. For all the purported perks of a corporate prison sponsor, these towns highlight, in bits and pieces, the instabilities in rural community economies, the criminal justice system, and the places they intersect.

Florence itself has a total of nine correctional facilities, five of which are private. It’s what one could call a “prison town.” The term came with the nineties phenomenon of restless rural prison construction, which, much like mandatory sentencing laws and Furbies, will continue to haunt us, presumably until they are eliminated or we all die. By one estimate, the U.S. was averaging one new prison every 15 days in the last decade before Y2K .

The aptly-homophonic Pinal County, home to Florence and its southern neighbor Eloy (which has another four CCA facilities), was no stranger to the boon; not-so-coincidentally it was named the one of the fast-growing counties in the post-millennium years .

Eight hundred miles east, Sayre, Oklahoma also found itself bit by the prison bug as the century turned. With little hope that America’s ballooning prison population would deflate any time soon, it was among the communities, along with plenty of stock-savvy individuals, that bought in after CCA and Wackenhut joined the Wall Street fray and prisons became one of the “it” industries to invest in.

As Sayre, Oklahoma City Manager Jack McKennon told the New York Times in 2001, “In my mind there’s no more recession-proof form of economic development.”

His reasoning?

“‘Nothing’s going to stop crime.”

In the swaths of country that live like it’s recession season year-round, the brew that brought prisons speaks to a sort of desperation. The Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) environment has an interesting cross-section in such situations – the “N” could easily stand for “Necessary.” Banking on prisons seemed a viable enough effort toward economic development: Florence, for one, has been able to build an economy around its prisons.

Sayre’s North Fork Correctional, on the other-hand, has faced a less certain future. Like other facilities that have imported prisoners, its stability has depended on the failure of other states that have since moved to keep fewer prisoners all-together and closer to home – in this case, Wisconsin and California, whose after-action reports on its operations carry a public records price tag of almost $700.

North Fork will soon be under lease to the state’s Department of Corrections, which may make for a more stable existence. That was, after all, what they were in it for.

Beyond the “how many-where-how much” understanding of who’s hiring the work, other agreements, tacit and typewritten, are made. Income from taxes and the assumed revenue from residents who now have jobs are an assumed benefit – a minimum number of local hires might be included as a clause in the contract between company and county, or flat fees or inmate kickbacks may contribute to the city’s coffers.

In exchange, the town needs to show its willingness to play ball. When the prison wants to expand, for example, more water and sewage capabilities are needed, which means construction. Florence and Sayre have both participated in such agreements.

GEO contributed to Florence’s new sewer line.

While Sayre shouldered the costs itself.

The relationship between town and company in these situations smacks of a “we’re in it together” attitude. Sayre, for example, agreed to help CCA receive state business incentives, while the company agreed to cooperate if the town wanted to apply for grants to cover those couple hundred thousand dollars of construction fees.

This relationship can be something like a quick hit whose benefits not only evaporate but whose side effects disproportionately affect the rest of the state.

In Sayre, the population count disparity contributes to a problem known as prison gerrymandering. According to the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative, which has focused on the issue, prisoners held in federal prisons or are imported to private prisons like North Fork Correctional Facility “are counted not just in the wrong district, but in the wrong state.”

The situation becomes one in which the relative strength of individual votes in a prison-heavy area are inflated while the hometown representation of the incarcerated population is cut short. The constituents of a district drawn, for example, around a town of 1,000 people, half of which are prisoners, would have twice the strength per vote as those in a town of 1,000 freely-voting people. In Oklahoma, PPI points out, this can create districts where one wouldn’t qualify under the law. In Pinal County, however, and to its credit, the method of discounting the Census Bureau’s tally is a way of keeping local election power from becoming artificially-inflated.

As we’re hearing time and again these days, in criminal justice, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution but mass incarceration isn’t working for anybody, and it’s these sort of local level complications – the space allowed between a town of 10,000 and 25,000 – that piecemeal form the landscape today.

With combined revenues of over $3 billion dollars, it’s easy enough to point to GEO Group and CCA as fueling the private incarceration industry. But between their prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers, youth residential centers, and community corrections facilities, there are now151 communities complicit across the country, including places like Florence or Sayre, where local cooperation has been necessary to the expansion of private prisons.

States with contracts with CCA

States with contracts with GEO

  • Yellow = leased only
  • Blue = facility managed
  • Red = facility owned/operated
  • Green = facilities owned, managed, and leased
  • Purple = facilities both owned/operated and managed

Consider, for example, cases of emergency in which the police or an ambulance might be called, situations from trespassing on the property to full-scale riots. Many private facilities require an agreement with local law enforcement before they begin operations, ensuring that they’ll respond if need be.

It may seem like a straightforward ask – after all, one expects that the cops come when called. But the number of times a department has to make good on that can vary widely, depending on things like how well-managed the place is or whether there are parties interested in getting contraband across the perimeter.

It’s a fringe cost and inconvenience typically unconsidered, because it’s part of the infrastructure we might take for granted, just like water and sewage systems, or other upgrades from the city, like roads to access the facilities. As we mentioned in Part One, a lot of times the infrastructure necessary for a prison, including things like waste disposal, depends on the town, and successful attempts at expansion depend, in part, on the town’s willingness to keep the infrastructure in line with the projected growth.

These sorts of fringe costs, though, can seemingly pale in comparison to the financial benefits a town is agreeing to when they sign on the dotted line.

Firstly, the creation of new jobs can be particularly attractive to a depressed area. It’s not uncommon to see agreements to fill X percent of jobs with local hires – in Sayre, for example, their unemployment rate dropped to practically negligible.

As important as that can be for an area, however, it also reveals a bit of the underbelly of that success: an obvious lack of other jobs and seeming dependency on a single entity. It’s clearly a precarious position for any area to be in, which, of course, is part of the appeal of a partnership for both parties. Private prisons are known for general staffing shortages andnotoriously high turnover, in part due to an inability to staff qualified officers in some areas and the general difficulty of the job.

But while the quality of employment is up for discussion, the expected revenue from those jobs, if filled, is less uncertain.

Taxes and fees that towns and counties receive can form an important part of the municipal budget. Beyond the costs of providing water and sewage, construction fees and other permits generate extra dough. Property taxes, too, can provide a huge, reliable source of revenue, even if the prison is closed.

For many towns, there is also the added benefit of a flat fee or per inmate commission for the prison enrollment, one of the clearest ways that a company can ensure that the city’s interests are aligning with their own.

As discussed before, IGSAs between the town and another government entity are managed with the benefit of an administrative fee, which can reach as much as $15,000 a month.

Other places, like in Colorado, rely on a 2 dollar-a-day kickback.

The economic impetus of these prisons is made particularly clear in areas where whole subdivisions assist with establishing the relationship, like in Louisiana at the LaSalle Economic Development District.

And they’re made even more curious by regular company perks, like the annual steak luncheon held in Eden, Texas …

and savings from inmate labor.

When weighing the tangible benefits against the intangible effects, it’s hard to see symptoms of an ailing society for all the dollar signs. It’s why places like California City cycle through customers, just as Sayre did, and why Pine Prairie responded to bids that weren’t even relevant to their state.

It’s also part of why it’s so alarming when records are held confidentially by the town, part of what raises flags when employees in these areas are encouraged to buy stock in the companies, compounding the incentive to keep the prison open, operating, and free of scandal, and part of why dozens and dozens of cities have bought into the prison pie.

And what if the prison can’t stay open?

Well, it’s part of what you see in Sayre, which the Oklahoma government recently granted a sort of reprieve when they agreed to lease the empty building.

Others are less fortunate, like the swath of Texas towns left defaulting on their loans, and other cities, like Kingman, AZ and Winnfield, LA that must also depend on the state to keep their investment open and afloat.

But dozens of other towns have said no to such an alliance, avoiding the maelstrom of misincentives, despite the sales pitch and the sort of optimism places like Florence give to towns wanting to get into the industry. Americans continuing to grapple with how to treat crime in this country, it’s important to consider the economic voids that are acting allies in the spread of private prisons.

  • Corrections Corporation – Red
  • GEO Group – Blue
  • Management and Training Corporation – Green

One thought on “The Private Prison Primer: A tale of two prison towns

  1. It’s disgusting, that Private Prisons are profiting from keeping people behind bars.

    Banks, mutual fund owners as well as public employee retirement systems all profit from the private prison business..

    Also, the Univ. of Berkley California used to profit from private prisons. Fyi, their president is none other than former DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano.

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