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Gaming the System: How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies Promote Ineffective Incarceration Policies


At a time when many policymakers are looking at criminal and juvenile justice reforms that would safely shrink the size of our prison population, the existence of private prison companies creates a countervailing interest in preserving the current approach to criminal justice and increasing the use of incarceration.

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. As revenues of private prison companies have grown over the past decade, the companies have had more resources with which to build political power, and they have used this power to promote policies that lead to higher rates of incarceration.

For-profit private prison companies primarily use three strategies to influence policy: lobbying, direct campaign contributions, and building relationships, networks, and associations.

As policymakers and the public are increasingly coming to understand that incarceration is not only breaking the bank, but it’s also not making us safer, will this shrink the influence of private prison companies? Or will they use their growing financial muscle to consolidate and expand into even more areas of the justice system? Much will depend on the extent that people understand the role for-profit private prison companies have already played in raising incarceration rates and harming people and communities, and take steps to ensure that in the future, community safety and well-being, and not profits, drive our justice policies. One thing is certain: in this political game, the private prison industry will look out for their own interests.

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Other Resources

Lobbying and campaign contribution figures: Center for Responsive Politics
Money in state politics: National Institute on Money in State Politics
Immigration and private prisons: Detention Watch Network
Grassroots organizing and research: Grassroots Leadership

For other organizations working on private prison issues, please contact our communications department.

*NOTE: The National Institute on Money and State Politics is constantly updating their figures. Numbers cited in the report is current as of May 3, 2011. For the latest data, please visit their website.

Keywords: Criminal Justice, Federal Policy, Incarceration, Prison Population, Private Prisons, Report, State & Local Policy

Posted in Criminal Justice (Adult)