Punishments & Profits: The private prison money trail

This post was written by former OK Policy intern Matt Simmons. Matt recently completed his MA in American history at the University of Tulsa, and he is currently pursuing a PhD in history at the University of Florida. He can be found on Twitter at @mattfsimmons.

Photo by taxfix.co.uk used under a Creative Commons License.
Photo by taxfix.co.uk used under a Creative Commons License.

This is the third and final post in a series of blog posts about private prisons in Oklahoma. The first post in this series looked at the history of private prisons in Oklahoma and how a slew of “tough on crime” measures passed in the 1980s accelerated an already growing incarceration rate. The second post examined the relative costs and benefits of utilizing private prisons versus public prisons. This third post will look at how the private prison industry has attempted to influence public policy through lobbying and campaign contributions to benefit its own bottom line.

From 2002 through 2009, the number of Americans incarcerated in private prisons grew by 37 percent. Over those same years, the amount of money contributed to politicians by the private prison industry increased 165 percent. But direct contributions from the private prison industry to political campaigns is only one of a myriad of ways that these companies can influence the legislative process. From 2003 to 2011, leading private prison companies Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group hired a combined 271 lobbyists to move their agenda forward in 32 states, including Oklahoma. Campaign contributions from lobbyists, private prison industry employees, and hard to identify political action committees (PAC’s) can involve a far more substantial sums.

According to a Tulsa World analysis, “Private prison interests have given nearly $200,000 in campaign dollars and gifts to 79 members of the state Legislature since 2004.” And the money trail does not end there. This same analysis found that “Since 2004, lobbyists, private prison and halfway house employees have given $375,425 to 165 elected official and candidates for office.” If those contributions have influenced Oklahoma’s law, it has certainly paid off. The state spent $73 million on private prison contracts in fiscal year 2012, up from $57 million in fiscal year 2004.

Governor Fallin and other prominent politicians in the state Capitol have received significant sums of money from the private prison industry. Fallin is the second largest recipient of private prison industry dollars to the tune of $33, 608 for her political campaigns. She is only surpassed by the current House Speaker, T.W. Shannon, who has received $34,950 from private prison interests. State Senator Clark Jolley follows closely behind as the third greatest single beneficiary of private prison industry dollars; he has received $30,450 in campaign contributions to date. Jolley recently commented on OETA that Oklahoma “has made a conscious policy decision that we like to lock up bad guys, and we want to put them away for a very long time. If there’s one thing that I think everyone is in agreement on, it’s that our prison populations are going to continue to grow.”

At a time when other states are moving away from the utilization of private prisons, Oklahoma seems to be embracing them more than ever. The previous posts in this series have made clear one simple fact: private prisons do not benefit Oklahomans on either side of the prison walls. They do benefit multi-billion dollar out-of-state corporations and provide their CEOs with exorbitant salaries. They also provide a big source of campaign money for politicians.

In the end, Oklahomans have a choice between a publicly managed prison system that pursues justice and rehabilitation of convicts, or a privately managed prison system that sees convicts as dollar signs.

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One thought on “Punishments & Profits: The private prison money trail

  1. Thanks for this excellent series and your commitment to getting facts rather than lobbyist/policymaker spin out to the public. Two more points. One, the supposed reason for the campaign contributions, that the private prison companies want to get candidates elected who will support their development, is not so impressive when you realize that the recipients of the funding win by 20%, 30% or are unopposed anyway. If you were a shareholder in those companies, you might wonder why your potential earnings are diverted to candidates with no chance of losing. (Or to get naming rights for college football stadiums as GEO did, then had to back away from in the resulting bad publicity.) Two, despite Sen. Jolley’s learned statement about Oklahomans wanting to lock more people up well into the future, go back and look at the relatively frequent public opinion polls of Oklahomans when given the choice. Then, when Sen. Jolley also tells you today is Wednesday, go back and look at the calendar.

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