Political Money Fuels Mass Incarceration

Political Money Fuels Mass Incarceration

By Matthew Bly

With more than six months still to go, outside interests have already spent $103.6 million in the 2014 election cycle. This is a good thing, right? I mean, if the Supreme Court is right and money equals speech in politics, there’s a lot of talking going on.

So let’s get to it. I’m not sure what the dollar to word exchange rate is, but I’ve got $23 in my wallet right now and I want to talk about mass incarceration. Mass incarceration involves crime, drugs, justice, racial inequality, and government spending, all of which are pretty important, so it’s a good topic for a political discussion.

America has only 5% of the world’s population, but houses 25% of its prisoners. There are a lot of reasons for that, poverty, racism, and politics among them. But I want to focus on the cost, not the cause. Can anyone hear what the billions spent on maintaining mass incarceration are saying? Has all that money, provided by taxpayers, suggested a solution to this problem? It hasn’t of course, and part of the reason is that other money, provided by special interests, is doing the talking on Capitol Hill and in our state legislatures.

A surprising truth of our criminal justice system is that publicly traded companies operate more than 130 American prisons. The two largest prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group, earned a combined income of $2.9 billion in 2010 alone. And over the past decade, they spent more than $45 million on political contributions, according to the Associated Press, increasing their spending with each election cycle.

These companies depend on growing prison populations to increase their revenue. So it’s not surprising that their political spending is directed toward persuading voters to elect candidates who’ll pass laws to keep the prisoners coming. And clearly, their money is being heard.

In fairness, I should acknowledge that inmates in private prisons make up only a fraction of the entire prison population. But, it’s the principle here that matters. There’s a stark difference between public investments to promote criminal justice and special interest investments to pad their balance sheets; we’re not hearing both sides of the story. The people swept up by mass incarceration have virtually no influence, no voice, no money, and no vote; private prison operators can bankroll political careers. Imagine a candidate who needs money to run for office. Who’s he or she more likely to fight for — those who are locked up or those who have the checkbook?