Will State End Involvement in For-Profit, Private Prisons?


Back in December, Oakland Assemblymember Rob Bonta introduced AB 32, which would prohibit California’s use of for-profit, private prisons.  He also introduced AB 33, requiring CalPERS and CalSTRS, California’s public retirement funds, to divest their holdings in for-profit, private prisons.

In a December press release, Assemblymember Bonda’s office noted the Trump administration’s policy on immigration separated children from their parents, where “[t]housands of adults and children have been detained in two for-profit, private prison facilities operating outside of San Antonio, Texas.”

In November, the California State Teachers’ Retirement Board voted to withdraw the $12.1 million invested in the two largest for-profit, private prison companies – CoreCivic and Geo Group.

“These companies are not only facilitating the Trump Administration’s political agenda, but profiting from the cruel, zero tolerance immigration policies that have torn innocent children from their families. This is inhumane and not in line with California’s values,” Assemblymember Bonta said. “In California, we put our money where our values are and I applaud CalSTRS for its recent decision to divest from for-profit, private prisons.”

At the same time, the assemblymember re-introduced legislation in the form of AB 32, that would end the use of for-profit, private prisons to incarcerate inmates.

Two years ago, he introduced AB 1320 to prohibit the renewal of state government contracts with for-profit, private prisons and to completely phase out their use by 2028. AB 1320 passed both houses of the Legislature but was vetoed by Governor Brown.

But, unlike his predecessor, Governor Newsom has prioritized the emptying of California’s private prisons.

In an article this weekend in the San Francisco Chronicle, they note: “Activists argue that corporations motivated by profit have a perverse incentive to support policies leading to more prison time for more people and to skimp on the services they provide to inmates.”

Governor Newsom last year, during his campaign, argued that for-profit prisons “contribute to over-incarceration.”

In his January inaugural address, he promised to “end the outrage that is private prisons in the state of California once and for all.”

The Chronicle points out that he has “the direct authority to make this campaign goal a reality — by moving about 3,700 inmates out of four private prisons in California and one in Arizona.”

But they also point out, “to fulfill his promise, Newsom will have to confront the challenges of slimming down California’s overburdened prison system to make more space, at a time when state prisons are barely under a federal court-imposed cap for their inmate population.”

When Governor Brown vetoed a similar measure, he noted the state “needs to maintain maximum flexibility in the short term” to keep the prison population within the court mandate.

The Chronicle spoke to the governor’s spokesperson Brian Ferguson, who wrote in an email that “addressing inequities in the criminal justice system is among the governor’s top priorities.

“The governor and his staff are also working closely with corrections department officials to reduce the state’s reliance on out-of-state and private prisons to house inmates,” Mr. Ferguson said. “However, there is still more to do, and we’ll be looking at all of our options when the time is right.”

But not everyone agrees that private prisons are the key to breaking mass incarceration.  John Pfaff, in his book, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration—and How to Achieve Real Reform, argues that private prisons are not the drivers of mass incarceration that some on the left have pushed as a path to reform.

He argued: “For all the attention paid to private prisons and the lobbying efforts of their corporate operators, they house only slightly more than seven percent of state prison inmates, and about 17 percent of the much smaller federal system.”

More importantly, he noted, is the influence of powerful prison guard unions which operate in public, not private, prisons.

“Yes, private firms have incentives to maximize the number of prisoners — but so do public sector actors, and they often have stronger incentives to do so, not to mention easier access to the politicians,” Professor Pfaff writes. “In fact, public prisons suffer from every pathology attributed to private prison firms. Every one, and likely in costlier ways.”

Professor Pfaff, on the contrary, suggests that prisons could be used to reduce incarceration.  Such an effort would require better contracts, awarding prisons who are able to get prisoners not to return to the system.

“Imagine that instead of paying private prisons based on the number of prisoners they held each day, we paid them based on how those prisoners performed upon release,” Professor Pfaff says.

Still, Professor Pfaff remains an outlier in this discussion, with high-profile concerns about the conditions in private prisons generating attention and pushback.

“With one of the highest recidivism rates in the country, California needs to invest in rehabilitation, not corporate profits,” said Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco).  “Private, for-profit prisons have a duty to their corporate shareholders to return large profits at every turn, which makes it nearly impossible to spend the resources necessary to genuinely rehabilitate someone.  I applaud Assemblymember Bonta for working to phase out this harmful industry in California.”

“There is no place in our country for corporations that profit from incarcerating folks, tearing apart families or putting children in cages,” Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) said. “I’m proud to join Assemblymember Bonta as a joint author of this important legislation and to also co-author a bill that would make California’s public investments reflect our values.”

“The built-in incentives for these businesses are all wrong,” said Assemblymember Bonta. “A private, for-profit company that’s traded on Wall Street will inherently be incentivized to maximize profits and minimize costs—including the important ‘costs’ of investments in programs, services and rehabilitation efforts for inmates— through warehousing our inmates.

“They have a duty to shareholders, not to California,” Assemblymember Bonta said.

“It’s time we redirect our criminal justice system to value and prioritize effective prison rehabilitation programs, which will help minimize recidivism rates and maximize successes for inmates upon their reentry into society,” he concluded.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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