Posted in Rants on March 15th, 2012 by Ed

There aren't many growth industries in this economy, but the U.S. has consistently churned out one commodity in record numbers since the 1970s: prison inmates. Thanks to the War on Drugs, corrections has transformed from a relatively modest component of state budgets to a resource hungry leviathan that cash-strapped legislatures are now struggling to control. In California, for example, prisons were 2% of the budget in 1980 but now consume a full 10% of every dollar the state takes in. Texas is now spending $6,000,000,000 annually on its carceral empire, nearly 8% of a state budget facing a $20 billion shortfall.

Given the high caliber of person serving in the average state legislature these days, it should come as no surprise that the proposed solution is the usual privatization-?????-PROFITS!!! shell game that looks suspiciously like taking a payday loan. It looks like that because the logic is exactly the same: the state gets a one-time cash payment now, signs a 20 year contract, and then spends far more than the short term infusion of cash to meet the terms of the contract. Most states – Louisiana, Minnesota, Florida, Virginia, on and on and on – have discovered that the proposed cost savings from prison privatization are an illusion, as the state ends up spending less on salaries and maintenance but far more on secondary costs like medical care and lawsuits. But who cares! We can get the cash today!

Private prison giant Corrections Corporation of America recently sent an offer to 48 states offering immediate cash payments in exchange for 20 year contracts on the state prison system. Some states will undoubtedly take them up on the offer, either falling for the promise of savings through "efficiency" or reasoning that the current crop of politicians will be long gone by the time the piper requests payment. The offer has an interesting caveat, though – CCA requires the states to guarantee 90% capacity in the prisons for the duration of the contract.

Several of my social networking site friends focused on the 90% requirement when commenting on this story. Predictably, most sane people are appalled at the idea of the state guaranteeing to incarcerate a minimum number of citizens every year. I understand the shock and disgust, but this requirement should be taken with a grain of salt. Every single state prison system in the country is currently operating at 97% capacity or higher according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics – in some cases much, much higher – and as recently as 2005 every single state was operating over capacity. We have been locking up so many people with such draconian sentences for the last 30 years that nothing short of blanket pardons for all non-violent offenders could bring inmate populations below 90% of capacity.

I understand why the idea of guaranteed inmate populations is jarring. The modern American correctional system is already such a disaster, though, that such guarantees are hardly necessary. It would be like the Arizona State Legislature signing a contract guaranteeing a set number of stupid, psychotic bills proposed per session; the implications for the democratic process are troubling, but the practical matter of hitting the target is a given.