Private Prisons and Political Power (Part One):
Money as Free Speech
Private prison companies use corporate constitutional rights and political contributions to influence our legal system in order to generate profit at the expense of the people. One of the largest private prison companies, CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) takes advantage of its constitutional rights and money as speech, as granted by the Supreme Court in a umber of ways including: contributing money to politicians[i], applying occupancy requirements in its government contracts[ii], and promoting, influencing, and even helping to write criminal justice laws including those that affect prison populations such as “three strikes” and “truth-in-sentencing” [iii]. Part one in this series will focus on the political contributions from the private prison industry.
The corporate right to free speech, as granted by the Supreme Court, has been instrumental in a number of the ways that corporations establish political power including campaign spending and money as political free speech. Most people are familiar with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC ruling from 2010, but the significance of campaign spending as free speech began decades earlier. In 1976, SCOTUS established that money is protected free speech in their Buckley v. Valeo decision. In 2010, the court established that any governmental regulation on indirect political spending by corporations, such as advertisements and information pieces not coordinated directly with candidates, would be an infringement on that free speech right in Citizens United.
Since these decisions, CoreCivic and other large private prison groups like Geo Group, Inc., have made significant political contributions at the federal and state level.
CoreCivic, together with GEO Group, gave $500,000 to support Trump’s election and inauguration.[iv] Within days of Trump’s inauguration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to go against the Department of Justice order from August to no longer contract with private prison companies.[v]
California Governor, Jerry Brown, received money from private prison companies and the prison guard’s union between 2010 and 2014. In 2013, he opened two new private prison centers with GEO and CoreCivic. “The contract with GEO is worth $30 million a year, paid for by state taxpayer money, to hold 1,400 people in their private prison facilities; CoreCivic receives $28.5 million a year from the state to hold 2,300 people.“ [vi]
- As reported by the Center for Responsive Politics, in the 2016 election cycle, CoreCivic, Inc PAC donated over $140,000 to members of Congress,[vii] and members of Congress have inserted provisions into bills such as occupancy quotas guaranteeing a certain number of beds will be filled at all times.[viii]
Companies may claim that they are not lobbying to promote pro-incarceration policies, however they are clearly concerned with how policies will affect profit as demonstrated in CoreCivic’s 2015 Annual Report that stated:
[t]he demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts...any changes with respect to...illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. [ix]
There are organizational efforts to put an end to private prisons including Abolish Private Prisons founded by a group of lawyers, professors, and community advocates seeking to end for-profit private prisons in the United States by challenging their constitutionality. Grassroots Leadership works nationwide to abolish for-profit private prisons, jails, and detention centers.
At Move To Amend, we are hard at work building a movement to pass the We The People Amendment. We are gaining momentum with more than 40 co-sponsors in the House and soon to be proposed in the Senate. This amendment is a solution to the false legal doctrines of (1) corporate constitutional rights and (2) money as political free speech, both of which are be ing exploited by the private prison industry. Sign the petition (www.movetoamend/motion), visit our website (www.movetoamend.org) and join our work to pass the 28th Amendment.
To learn more:
- “How Corporations Took Over the First Amendment” by Joe Pinsker (4/1/15)
- “Gaming the System: How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies Promote Ineffective Incarceration Policies” by Paul Ashton, Justice Policy Institute (6/22/11) (pdf)
- “Private Prisons and Political Contributions: How Big Money Shackles Immigration Policy” by Jasmine Gomez and Pamela Cataldo. (12/14/16)
- “This Is How Private Prison Companies Make Millions Even When Crime Rates Fall” by Andy Kroll (9/19/13)
Part two in this series will focus on the impact of occupancy quotas and how the private prison industry influences legislation toward its own benefit.