Big Money and Prison Privatization

by Anita

It is relatively easy to find instances of big money’s influence in national elections and issues. Finding such influence in state and local politics is a bit more difficult, but by no means impossible.

For example, Texas, along with other states, has been affected by corporate influence in the privatization of prisons. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been used to promote “model” legislation in many states, including Texas; these model laws involve privatization in addition to many other issues.

According to Sharon Dolovich, writing in the Duke Law Journal (1) “The private prison industry, to increase the demand for its services, exerts whatever pressure it can to encourage state legislators to privatize state prisons.” This pressure may include aggressive lobbying and campaign donations to key members of the state’s legislature.

The two largest private prison firms, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut), have been members of ALEC  for a number of years. ALEC has previously maintained a low profile, preferring to work “behind the scenes” to enact state laws that will meet its corporate members’ needs. Dolovich reported that almost a third of all state and federal legislators around the country were members of ALEC.

Upon payment of membership dues, corporations and trade associations can become members of ALEC; a further payment allows them to join a task force such as the Education or the Criminal Justice task force. Both CCA and The GEO Group have been on the Criminal Justice task force, with leaders from CCA co-chairing the group at two different times. Thus, ALEC mixes government and corporate leaders in a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” type of “cooperation.”

These CCA and GEO Group representatives were present when ALEC’s model “truth in sentencing” bills were drafted to restrict parole eligibility for prisoners. Longer jail time for prisoners means more money for private prison corporations – this self-serving goal can be met through a “closed door” organization such as ALEC. (2)

In March 2011, John Burnett of NPR reported that Texas has more for-profit prisons than any other state. As mentioned above, when corporations like CCA or GEO Group contract with state governments to build and manage prisons, they receive a guarantee of a constant capacity, typically 90%.

But what if there are not enough criminals to reach that capacity? In that case, two things may happen: longer sentences and the increased imprisonment of nonviolent offenders. If that isn’t enough to maintain capacity, rural towns – where the most for-profit prisons are built – can be left with an empty, useless, and expensive prison complex if the corporation leaves. (3)

Erik Kain of Forbes points out that this kind of “privatization” is a fake. “If all you do is take taxpayer money and give it to a private corporation to do a mandated public service like prison work, you’re not actually shrinking government.” Because the state is ultimately responsible for putting people in prison, this is not true privatization, it is for-profit government. (4)

According to, Texas State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and State Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, have financial links to the GEO Group, a Florida-based firm that runs 19 correctional facilities in Texas, including nine under contract for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. (5)

Zaffirini’s husband, Carlos, is a lawyer and advocate for the firm. In December 2007, the Zaffirinis’ hometown commissioners in rural Webb County considered whether to stop supplying water and sewer lines to a local GEO-owned prison after residents voiced concerns about the company’s track record. The Laredo Morning Times reported that Zaffirini put on a spirited defense of the firm, claiming the complaints against his client were “steeped in emotion and void of logic.”

Oliveira, meanwhile, also has a cozy relationship with the prison company. His Brownsville law firm serves as its local defense counsel. The House member’s cousin David Oliveira, a partner at the firm, has represented the company on a lawsuit alleging misconduct that one judge described as “reprehensible.”

The twisted relationship between Texas prisons and Texas politicians has existed for a long time, and is not likely to improve anytime soon. However, the Citizens United and decisions made a bad situation worse by taking away any power to control political donations that the Federal Election Commission might have had previously. We have moved towards corporate power and away from public power; the voting public has a steadily diminishing ability to seek its own best interests.

Since we live in a capitalist society, corporations and their leaders are tasked with making as much money as possible by their shareholders and, perhaps, by their employees. This is appropriate. However, legislators are elected by the public for the public’s benefit, not for the benefit of corporations; when corporations are not restricted in their influence on public policy, the interests of corporate shareholders becomes paramount to legislators as well.

We need our publicly elected politicians to stand up for the rights of their constituencies by working towards a constitutional amendment to repeal the Citizens United and Supreme Court decisions.

1. Dolovich, Sharon. (2005). “State Punishment and Private Prisons.” Duke Law Journal, 55(3) p. 537-545. retrieved from






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