All over the US, small towns like Eden, desperate for jobs, have welcomed private prisons. But ask Littlefield how that's working
Last week, it emerged that the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) had sent a letter to 48 states offering to take their prisons off their hand in exchange for a quick infusion of cash. The only small catch was that the states would have to sign a contract guaranteeing 90% occupancy of those prisons for the next 20 years. Now, if that seems a little cheeky ? a bit like a hotel chain saying we'll buy up your struggling resort if you can guarantee the beds will always be full ? you have to understand the CCA's predicament.
Unlike a hotel, a private prison cannot sell its services directly to its customers. The power to hold a person against their will is a power that state alone enjoys (for the time being, anyway), so for private prison companies to continue to grow, they need the state to send as many customers their way as possible. To ensure this customer base never dries up, they have to convince society that maintaining high levels of incarceration is in our best interests ? not despite the fact that there is profit to be made from depriving individuals of their liberty, but because of it.
To be fair to the CCA, and other private prison companies, society for the most part has been more than willing to play along. For decades now, many small towns across America that fell on hard times were only too happy to embrace the prison industry as their economic salvation. The CCA's website features an article from the Texas Monthly magazine, entitled "Yes in my Back Yard: How Eden learned to stop worrying and love its private prison", about one such town called Eden, which is apparently besotted with its CCA-owned detention center. While the CCA has become one of the leading local employers, the article cheerfully notes that "At least half the town's 2,500 residents live behind bars."
The half of the town that is behind bars didn't get to weigh in with their feelings about what it's like to live in a prison town. Presumably, for them, Eden is no paradise. But the town's free citizens, many of whom have jobs in the prison, will not hear a bad word said against it.
The nature of the work did not seem to bother anyone too much, apart from the admission that the town still loses young people who, apparently, don't grow up dreaming of a prison job. All in all, though, the Texas Monthly reports so much enthusiasm about the prison that one can't help considering the possibility that Eden may have hit on the economic model of the future whereby one half of the town is behind bars and the other half is gainfully employed to keep them that way. What's not to like?
The CCA, Geo Group Inc and other private prison companies would certainly be thrilled if more of us would embrace incarceration as the growth industry of the future. The problem is that, as an industry, it seems to have peaked. Half the states last year reported declining prison populations. That should be welcomed as good news, but for the many towns that, like Eden, hitched their economic well-being to the prison bandwagon, it's a disaster. Particularly, when it turns out that because of how the prison-building deals were financed and structured, it is the town ? and not the private prison company ? that takes the hit when there's a downturn in the industry.
In 2000, the town of Littlefield, Texas borrowed $10m to build the Bill Clayton Detention Center, which was operated by the for-profit GEO Group Inc. For nearly eight years, the prison did well (in financial terms, that is), and employed around 100 people. Then, in 2009, in the wake of several scandals involving inmate mistreatment and suicide, the state of Idaho withdrew all of the inmates they had sent there, leaving the prison with a lot of empty beds. Shortly afterwards, GEO announced it was pulling out, too. And so, the town was left to pick up the tab.
This meant that, every month, the small town had to come up with $65,000 to pay off the note on the prison. Finally, last July, inhabitants held an auction and managed to find a buyer willing to pay $6m for the prison ? just over half what they paid for it.
There are many other towns that have suffered Littlefield's fate, and there is a growing sense that the prison bubble may be about to burst, if it hasn't already. But the CCA may well prevail in their attempt to grow their business by buying up state prisons. They only need to convince enough of the right people that an expanding prison population is not a relentless drain on our economic resources, but an essential component of our public safety and economic well-being. So far, it seems, plenty of us have been quite happy to buy that.