Skip Navigation

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?”