Congratulations! The Taxes You Just Paid Might Be On Their Way to a Private Prison

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Blog of Rights / ACLU

Congratulations! The Taxes You Just Paid Might Be On Their Way to a Private Prison

For-profit prison companies get contracts all over the country by promising they can run prisons better and more cheaply. But time and time again, they've broken that promise. (Photo via ACLU)

Ah, April 15th. Tax Day. 

When you pay taxes, you assume they'll be used to support education, health care, public transportation, and other programs that make your community stronger. That's true, but so is this: some of your hard-earned dollars might be bundled into a massive payout to a private prison company that cares more about profits than public safety.

That's right, taxpayers: for-profit prison companies are skimming off the top of taxes you pay ostensibly to create safer communities. And no company benefits more than the largest private prison company out there: the Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA.

CCA gets contracts all over the country by promising it can run prisons better and more cheaply. But time and time again, they've broken that promise. That's why the ACLU of Tennessee is launching the "Who Is CCA?" campaign to expose the business tactics and egregious track record of CCA, which is headquartered in Nashville. Our aim is to deliver a petition with tens of thousands of signatures to Governor Bill Haslam asking him to walk away from his contracts with a company that has made massive profits off our country's overuse of incarceration.

Nearly 29 years ago, I stood before members of the Tennessee House of Representatives to testify against prison privatization in Tennessee.  At the time, privatization was being hailed as the "cure-all" to numerous problems plaguing the Tennessee prison system.  But ACLU-TN believed there were too many unanswered questions about the constitutional, financial, and ethical ramifications of a private, profit-driven corporation taking over custody of inmates. Today, we have those answers — and they aren't pretty.

CCA operates more than 60 facilities across the country and pocketed $1.7 billion in taxpayer-funded profits in 2012 alone.  CCA values profits above the public safety improvements that would actually benefit our communities. In2012 Securities and Exchange Commission filings, the company reported that "risks" to their bottom line include "reductions in crime rates."

Private prisons have incentives to maximize profits by cutting corners at the expense of decent conditions and safety, so the high levels of violence within some CCA facilities shouldn't be surprising. Take just two examples. At a CCA-run facility in Ohio, prisoners were forced to defecate in bags because they lacked access to running water.  A study by the Idaho Department of Corrections found that an Idaho CCA facility, known as the "Gladiator School," had four times as many prisoner-on-prisoner assaults as the state's seven other prisons combined.

Hiring for-profit companies to run our prisons is not saving us any also wastes our money.  As just one example, Tennesseans were required by contract to pay CCA nearly half a million dollars for empty beds at the Metro Detention Facility in Nashville in 2011. What's worse, CCA admitted to falsely billing Idaho for 4,800 hours of unstaffed security posts during night shifts at the facility.

With all of these problems, how does CCA continue to grow?  By spending millions of dollars on political contributions and by litigating to ensure it is not subject to the same open-records laws as publicly-run prisons.

Our reliance on private prisons is not cost-effective, safe, or fair. It's time for Tennessee to join the ranks of Texas, Idaho, Mississippi, and Kentucky, and walk away from its contracts with CCA.

Tennessee is done paying the price for CCA's broken promise. Sign the petition urging Governor Haslam to end its CCA contracts.​

Hedy Weinberg

Hedy Weinberg is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.

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