June 19, 2006

Prisons For Fun And Profit

by Bob Libal
“PRISON TYCOON /allows you to build and run your very own correctional facility from the comfort of your own home, on your PC./ / / / Control the layout of your prison buildings and the arrangement of the rooms and facilities within them. Place dormitories and cellblocks, mess halls and gymnasiums, but don't expect to be able to build death row right away.”/

So starts the game description of /Prison Tycoon/, the newest release in the Tycoon PC game series. The series includes more benign-sounding titles such as /Rollercoaster Tycoon/ which puts you in charge of an amusement park and /Coffee Tycoon/ which has you oversee a coffee franchise.

/Prison Tycoon/ would be just another in a string of relatively offensive video games (think Grand Theft Auto) if it were only a farfetched fiction as it seems. Instead, /Prison Tycoon/ is a reflection of one of the fastest growing and most nefarious legal industries in the United States.

As the game promises, “In /Prison Tycoon/, you're at the ground floor of the country's largest growth industry.” And that’s no lie. Real prison tycoons exist, and they’re getting rich heading companies called Corrections Corporation of America (NYSE:CXW) and The GEO Group (NYSE:GGI). (Yes, the NYSE logos mean you can buy and trade in prisons on the stock exchange.)

George Zoley, the CEO of GEO Group, makes over $3.6 million a year in total compensation. CCA’s John Ferguson draws in just under $3 million in his role overseeing the country’s fifth largest prison system and over 62,000 prisoners. There companies are the biggest in the billion-dollar-a-year industry, and one that is growing every year.

Unfortunately, what’s good for prison tycoons isn’t nearly as good for the rest of us. Last summer the federal government announced that there were nearly 2.2 million people in prisons in the United States – nearly twice as many as were imprisoned just ten years ago. In fact, while the United States has roughly 8% of the world’s total population, it incarcerates nearly 25% of the world’s imprisoned population. The “land of the free” incarcerates more of its citizens (in sheer numbers and per capita) than any other nation.

Nationwide, the bulk of the newly incarcerated are young people of color who have been convicted of non-violent drug offenses and immigrants who are being incarcerated under harsh new “counterterrorism” laws and policies.

The Presbyterian Church, United Methodists, and all 48 Southern Catholic Bishops have criticized for-profit prisons as having a vested interest in incarceration. Beyond the moral dilemma posed by incarceration for profit, it is increasingly clear that for-profit prison operators produce more volatile and violent prisons.

Criminologist James Austin found that privatized prisons have 49% to 65% higher rates of violence both against inmates and guards. These effects largely come from cost-saving measures implemented to ensure a profit is made such as cutting the number and pay of guards and trimming programs for education and rehabilitation.

Private prisons are banking on a crackdown on undocumented workers to fill prison beds. In Texas alone, there are over 7,500 recently built or proposed private prison beds solely designed to house federal detainees – almost all of whom are immigrants held on non-violent charges.

Last month, the Austin American-Statesman reported that Corrections Corporation of America had received a contract from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to incarcerate detained immigrant families awaiting deportation in it’s Don T. Hutto facility in Taylor, Texas. The Hutto facility will be only the second such “family prison” in the country.

But, imprisoned immigrant families probably won’t be featured in /Prison Tycoon/. Instead, you’ll be treated with the other, less human side of the prison system in the U.S. – making big bucks operating prisons.

/Bob Libal is the co-coordinator of Grassroots Leadership’s Not With Our Money! campaign in //Austin//, //Texas//. He can be reached at bob@notwithourmoney.org . /


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