Private prisons make more money the more people they keep incarcerated. In Florida, activists are working to stop the practice.

by Thomas Kennedy | June 29, 2018 2:32 pm

As Americans we believe deeply in freedom and fairness. We believe that we should be free to pursue the American dream, no matter your station in life or where you were born. We believe that you earn money – and sometimes even get rich – off of your own hard work, not on the backs of others and most definitely not on the backs of those who are struggling the most.

Yet, one area that has defied those hard-wired beliefs is the imprisonment of human beings for profit. This industry has become a lucrative business in the United States. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, private prisons were responsible for approximately 7 percent of state prisoners and 18 percent of federal prisoners in 2015. On the immigration side, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported that private immigration detention centers held nearly three quarters of federal immigration detainees. Those numbers do not include people imprisoned in local jails in a handful of other states.

These numbers mean big profits for private companies, such as the Florida based GEO Group, which reported annual revenues of $2.26 billion in 2017, up nearly 4 percent from $2.18 billion in 2016.

This is a clear case of the wealthy few getting wealthier by causing more suffering to as many people of color and immigrants as possible.

Before Barack Obama left office, the Justice Department had announced plans to phase out the use of private prisons and GEO’s stock price sharply dropped as a result. Yet GEO Group has seen a dramatic reversal of its fortunes under the Trump era, which is not a surprise considering their strong support for the Trump campaign in 2016. After the election, the administration awarded the contract for the first new immigration detention center built under Trump and the Justice Department reversed its previous decision to use private prisons. GEO’s stock soared.

GEO has since been accused of illegally donating over $250,000 to a pro-Trump political action committee during the 2016 election despite rules that state federal contractors are not allowed to make political contributions. For Trump’s inauguration, GEO wrote another check for $250,000 and top lobbyist and Trump’s chief fundraiser Brian Ballard celebrated with Trump, bringing the GEO Group as a client shortly after the election.

The influence that GEO’s money has on politics is not limited to Trump. Florida Governor Rick Scott has taken more than $718,000 from GEO, including $150,000 in 2018 alone. Scott has in fact taken more GEO money then any other politician in Florida and he is so close with the company that its CEO George Zoley threw him a fundraiser in his home at Boca Raton for $10,000 a plate.

For-profit prisons have been called out repeatedly for human rights abuses. A scathing report by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission found that most detention facilities fail to provide adequate medical care, deny detainees proper legal representation, officials ignore cases of rape or sexual abuse and engage in Islamophobic behavior, such as barring Muslims from celebrating religious holidays.

Unfortunately, contributions from GEO trickle down to the state legislature as well, with State Senate records showing that GEO Group lobbyists paid between $220,000 and $360,000 to influence lawmakers. This money has allowed private prisons to operate in Florida without fear of hard opposition or regulations.

This electoral cycle, progressive organizations in Florida are taking a stand against the corrupting influence that GEO’s money has had in Florida politics, and are asking elected officials and candidates to sign the Freedom Pledge to NOT take any more private prison money. If they have received contributions from the industry in the past, we ask them to send the contributions as donations to a community organization or social service program of the person’s choosing.

Private prison companies are financially successful at the expense of the liberty of human beings. To put a financial incentive to incarcerate people and keep them incarcerated is against everything that we should strive to be as a society. It is time to do away with this industry that has profiteered from locking up human beings, and it’s time we demand that our elected officials also take a stand against this immoral practice.

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