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Private Prisons and Interest Groups

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Privately owned prisons began to emerge in the mid-1980s. These prisons emerged because of the ideological imperatives of the free market, the huge increase in the number of prisoners, and the substantial increase in imprisonment costs. (1) Proponents of privatized prisons put forward a simple case: The private sector can do it cheaper and more efficiently. Corporations such as Correction Corporation of America and Wackenhut promised design and management innovations without reducing costs or sacrificing quality of service. (1) Many interest groups comprised of correctional officers, labor works, and a few citizen groups strongly oppose the privatization of the prison system. I will identify four of these groups that oppose private prisons, describe what each has sought to accomplish, and how they have gone about it and to what extent they have been successful.

The AFSCME Corrections United (or ACU) is an affiliate of the labor group known as The American Federation of State, City, and Municipal Employees. This group is composed of 60,000 correction officers and 20,000 correction employees. They’ve joined forces in a labor union to fight for better pay and benefits, for safe work places, and to uphold the standard of professionalism in their field. (2) AFSCME Corrections United claims that private prisons threaten public and worker safety and rip off taxpayers. They have launched a nationwide campaign to urge legislators to keep prisons in public hands and to educate the public on the dangers of private prisons. This group has used such methods as conducting media campaigns, letter writing campaigns, trying to pass legislation, lobbying government officials, and engaging in appropriate legal action to stop prison privatization.

Members of the Advisory Committee addressed reporters at a May 6, 1998 press conference to kick off the nationwide campaign against the privatization of prisons. At the press conference, ACU released a report that was conducted by ACU Department of Research and Collective Bargaining Services. This report documented private prisons’ high incidence of violence, riots and inmate escapes. This report also documents that private prisons promise savings for taxpayers, yet there is no evidence that these savings exist. (3) Similar press conferences took place May 12, 1998 in numerous state capitals across the country.

In January 1999, Correctional Corporation of America converted its corporate structure into a real estate investment trust, or REIT, called Prison Realty Trust. A REIT is a company that gets a huge federal tax break for owning real estate. The tax break is not supposed to go to companies that own businesses, including prisons. However, CCA believed that they had found a way to get the tax break while operating their private prison business. ACU has sent letters to the IRS and the Treasury Department outlining their belief that Prison Realty should not qualify as a REIT and that CCA is exploiting a tax break that was suppose to stabilize real estate ownership. (4)

Aside from letter writing campaigns and informing the public and the press, AFSCME Corrections United also supports legislature against the privatization of prisons. One important piece of legislation is the Public Safety Act (H.R. 979) At ACU’s lobbying efforts, Reps. Ted Strickland (D-OH), Peter King (R-NY), Tim Holden (D-PA) and John Sweeney (R-NY), introduced “The Public Safety Act” to prohibit the further privatization of our prisons. (5) This bill will require future federal prison operatives to be performed by employees of the United States government. It also would require states that receive federal prison grants to not contract out their prison operations to private corporations. The Public Safety Act continues to gain bipartisan support of members of Congress. This bill has added nine co-sponsors recently and is up to a total of 117 co-sponsors. ACU is making a push for addition co-sponsors in advance of “National Correctional Officers and Employees Week” which will occur the week of May 7, 2000. (6)

ACU has been successful at lobbying members of Congress to introduce the Public Safety Act. They have also been successful at lobbying support for the bill by members of Congress. Although the fate of the bill is still unknown, it is gaining support with the help of ACU lobbying efforts. I was unable to find out if ACU has been successful in their letter writing campaigns or informing the press and the public.

ACU has done a lot of research into private prisons and the results are readily available to the public.

ACU has proven that success can come from lobbying. They are only a group of 80,000 and they were able to lobby a few congressmen into introducing a bill that is against the privatization of prisons.

The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association (or OCSEA) is another organized

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