Q&A: Lauren-Brooke Eisen Talks Private Prisons, Mass Incarceration, and X-Box's

Lauren-Brooke Eisen talked with The National Book Review about the rise of private prisons, the growing movement to divest from prison companies' stock, and why prisoners do not like private prisons.

November 8, 2017

Cross-posted from The National Book Review.

1.    You’ve written a new book about private prisons and their role in mass incarceration.  How big are private prisons today – and are they growing?

There are 126,000 people being held in private prison facilities in 29 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons.  It’s about 7 percent at the state level and 18 percent at the federal level. But what most people are not aware of is that about 65 percent of ICE immigrant detention center beds are managed by the private sector. We have essentially privatized immigration detention in this country. And that is significant considering that the Trump administration has requested more than $1.2 billion in the 2018 federal budget to expand detention capacity to more than 48,000 beds a day.

In terms of growth, the two largest private prison corporations -- GEO Group and CoreCivic -- earned a combined $4.3 billion in 2016, with $382 million in profits. Hedging their bets in light of the significant sentencing reform sweeping the country, these companies have diversified their business model by buying reentry programs, halfway houses, drug treatment centers, and electronic monitoring companies. This trend toward buying up treatment centers is being called “The Treatment Industrial Complex.”  Both GEO Group and CoreCivic have also diversified by building and operating prisons overseas, especially in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.

2.    In your book, you connect private prisons to mass incarceration – to the fact that the United States has one of the highest rates of people behind bars in the world.  How is that connected to private prisons?

While the for-profit prison industry and the vast prison industrial complex did not singlehandedly drive mass incarceration, we can’t ignore the fact that the private prison industry influenced the landscape and shaped how we got here. “Here” being 2.2 million people in our nation’s jails and prisons and upwards of 30,000 people in immigration detention centers. The United States incarcerates more people than any other country on the planet.

The book also examines the broader prison-industrial complex that relies on a vast infrastructure of financial incentives that create significant hurdles to dismantling a mass incarceration system on which the nation has come to rely. An entire industry exists with a financial stake in keeping prisons filled or ensuring that the numbers of people who become enmeshed in the criminal justice system is maintained, if not greatly increased. Widening the lens to the 4.65 million people under some sort of correctional control outside of brick-and-mortar institutions, private probation companies, electronic monitoring companies, and even drug and mental health treatment companies turn a profit from those caught up in the criminal justice system.

There are nearly limitless opportunities to profit off of the incarcerated in America. Private prisons are just one part of this multi-billion-dollar business.  This web of complex economic incentives—from prison telephone charges to architectural fees to correctional unions to private prisons—runs deep.

3.    In your research, you visited private prisons – your book begins with a description of going to one in Colorado.  What did you learn from seeing these institutions close-up?

In the book, I cataloged my efforts to illustrate just how challenging it is to peek inside the world of private prisons. Proving that an industry is or is not transparent is difficult, and many of the contracts with the private prisons contain provisions for monitoring, mandate stringent staffing requirements, and require certain healthcare for inmates. But even getting answers to my research questions—many of which would have given the corporations a platform to advertise practices they believe are a credit to them and to the field—was impossible. And interviewing current officials and board members equally so. The wardens and correctional officials I met on my tours of these prisons were friendly and open to questions, but my access to these facilities was always through the state departments of corrections and ICE, not through the private prison corporations themselves.

When one does walk around these private institutions, they don’t look that different from a government prison or detention center except for the corporation’s labels on corrections officers’ uniforms. The differences are more subtle, such as less programming at many private prisons than exists at government prisons and fewer correctional staff in many cases.

4.    There has been a divestiture movement of universities disassociating themselves from prison companies, and some political candidates not taking contributions from them.  How did this movement come about, and what are its goals?

For decades, student activists have protested their schools’ investments, from the tobacco industry to today’s campaigns against fossil fuels. The widespread student protest of South African Apartheid was especially effective in its calls for divestment. On today’s college campuses, prison divestment has emerged as a modern-day civil rights issue.  It is one that sits at the intersection of students’ discontent with mass incarceration, racial disparities in the criminal justice system, over-policing in black, low-income communities, income inequality, and equal access to justice.

I attended divestment meetings on college campuses and interviewed students who spearheaded these campaigns. Columbia University recently became the first university to divest from all private prisons and a slight domino effect ensued, with momentum transferring to student groups all across the country. Just this year, New York City’s pension funds sold its investments in private prison companies, to the tune of approximately $48 million in stocks and bonds, acknowledging the risk of the industry attracting “long-term reputational and financial harm.” And a few weeks ago, Philadelphia’s Board of Pensions and Retirement voted to divest from the for-profit-prison industry, liquidating about $1.2 million in stock of GEO Group, CoreCivic, and G4S, another private prison company.

When I asked students why they supported divestment from private prisons, the students felt passionately that their institutions were intellectual leaders and should not be investing in corporations that perpetuated mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. They said they felt complicit in mass incarceration just by going to school at institutions that had financial holdings in the industry.

5.  Your book is both description and policy prescription. What do you think we should do about private prisons – and incarceration generally?

The book ultimately concludes that the industry suffers from a significant lack of transparency and accountability given the power it has over the lives of so many inmates and undocumented citizens detained in immigration detention centers. And for those who care about reducing the total number of people behind bars in America, the industry creates a significant hurdle.

At the same time, the book acknowledges that today’s political reality is that private prisons are not going away any time soon. Almost immediately after becoming head of the Justice Department, Attorney General Sessions wrote a memo to the Bureau of Prisons reversing the Obama era guidance to curb reliance on private prisons. How the institutions function for their inmates – whether they make it more or less likely that these men and women end their sentences ready to rejoin the community – matters greatly, to those behind bars and to us, and it is this concern that drives my inquiry. As the debate rages, are there ways to improve these institutions, to shift the incentives that shape them?

The book suggests a number of reforms to the industry.  Among these are asking government to require these corporations to reduce recidivism rates more than government is currently doing, requiring that private corporations allow the media and families access to for-profit prisons, and significantly, requiring private prisons to comply with open records requests – something most private prisons are not subject to. Private prisons operate under a veil of secrecy by claiming exemption from public records laws that apply to government-operated facilities, but that can be changed through legislation, or by putting transparency requirements into government contracts with these companies.

But at the end of the day the book wrestles with this moral question: even with better contract incentives and more stringent monitoring, what do private prisons say about our society?

6. What do you think will surprise readers the most about your book?

I was struck that every person I spoke to who spent time behind bars at a private prison felt so strongly that there is no place for the for-profit prison industry in corrections. The reason it was so surprising is that many of them told me that they had an easier time at a private prison. Many of them were given more freedom (usually due to fewer correctional officers staffing the facility) and were allowed X-Boxes and other video gaming equipment that they weren’t allowed to possess in state prisons. I asked every incarcerated or formerly incarcerated person  I interviewed what their opinion of the industry was. A formerly incarcerated individual told me, “What hope is there for the criminal justice system getting fixed if private companies are now making money off of our incarceration?”