Corrections Corporation of America: Profit over Promise

The United States has the world’s highest rate of incarceration per capita at approximately 480 prisoners per 100,000 residents.[i] There were an estimated 1.6 million prisoners serving time in a US federal or state correctional facility in 2012.[ii] Of this population, 137,000 prisoners were housed in institutions owned by private organizations.[iii] The most notable of these organizations is the Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA. CCA is “the nation’s largest owner of privatized correction and detention facilities and one of the largest prison operators in the US behind only the federal government and three states.” CCA provides outsourced operation and management of over 60 prisons in 20 states to its government partners, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Immigration and Customers Enforcement, and the US Marshal Service. With increasingly overcrowded federal- and state-managed prisons, government agencies are more likely to contract their facilities to private firms like CCA. The company recorded $1.7 billion in revenues and $300 million in net income last year alone.[iv] Seems like a promising business opportunity, but is profiting from the detainment of convicted criminals really ethical justice?

Mass Incarceration by the Numbers

Mass incarceration by the numbers

Source: Prison Policy Initiative

CCA’s business strategy is meant to integrate public sector oversight with private sector business efficiency that together yield high-quality, cost-efficient imprisonment. Unfortunately, this strategy is more self-serving in practice than it is societally beneficial. In this paper, I will first discuss the ethical issues that arise from the privatization of prisons in the US. I will analyze these issues through both retributivist and consequentialist perspectives. I will then use CCA as an example of the ways in which privately owned corrections fail to provide inmates with an adequate quality of life by evaluating the standard wages and rehabilitative services offered. Finally, I will examine the cycle of poverty and re-incarceration perpetuated by the US prison system and recommend alternative solutions that would benefit current inmates, ex-convicts, state and federal governments, and local communities.

CCA’s profitability depends on the continued trend of increasing incarcerations and decreasing capacity in public facilities, making governments more inclined to outsource their prison operations. Only interested in its own bottom line, CCA exemplifies Milton Friedman’s shareholder value theory, in which the sole responsibility of a business is “to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.”[v] Although CCA has certainly become a thriving business, the prison industry was founded on principles of social justice and not ones of financial gain. But because the company is paid per prisoner, per day, it has strong incentive to keep consistently full facilities. By enforcing high occupancy quotas in its contracts – in many cases requiring over 80 or 90 percent of capacity – CCA guarantees a steady revenue stream. In order to meet these quotas, CCA pours millions into political lobbying efforts each year and in return, state legislators pass into effect unnecessarily strict laws that convict citizens for minor offenses and lengthen sentence times.[vi] Private prison corporations like CCA are motivated by self-interest rather than integrity and promote the unethical detainment of other people to put cash in their executives’ and shareholders’ pockets, therefore undermining the ethics-based principles of the US judicial system.

Source: Brave New Foundation

Ethical theories have similar conclusions but divergent rationale regarding the institutionalization of criminal justice. The two most relevant and widely discussed are retributivism and consequentialism. The retributive theory of punishment developed by German philosopher Immanuel Kant asserts that it is just to penalize criminals for the harms they have inflicted upon society. He states, “For if justice and righteousness perish, human life would no longer have any value in the world.”[vii] This view justifies imprisonment by recognizing the accused as a rational agent of society who willingly abandoned his or her moral conduct and should therefore be held responsible for any corrupt behavior. Kant also proposes that the sentence prescribed should be proportionate in severity to the crime committed as deemed appropriate by the legal system. This claim requires that by sacrificing the public interest in breaking the law, offenders must sacrifice something of equal value if found guilty. Many contemporary state legal systems are violating this principle of retributivism, ruling in favor of private prison corporations like CCA by administering sentences far in excess of their associated crimes. Although Kant’s theory supports justice through incarceration – and in certain cases through death – it does not provide any guidance on the issue of privatization. For this, the lens must be broadened toward consequentialist ideology.

Consequentialism separates the ethical and the unethical by assuming, “the morally right action is the one with the best overall consequences,” where consequences include both the action itself and all its after-effects.[viii] While consequential theory also supports criminal justice through fair imprisonment, it does not advocate for the privatization of said justice. A consequentialist analysis leads to the conclusion that punishing those who deserve punishment yields positive consequences for government and society that outweigh negative costs for individuals.[ix] Adding a privatized institution like CCA to this equation in place of a government entity complicates the previous balance. The profit-seeking nature of these private firms creates more good consequences in the form of growing revenue for business and for state and federal governments. However, this same profitability creates more harmful consequences for society by enforcing higher taxes and stricter legislation. Does this tip the scale in the other direction? In order to measure how these new consequences impact society’s overall benefit, we must evaluate the success of CCA’s attempts to create a “socially responsible” prison experience.


Keeping people out or keeping them in?

Source: Wise Geek

Private prisons are lucrative businesses that tend to develop strategies for corporate growth rather than of social betterment. Multiple investigations into CCA’s system have revealed a continual disregard for prisoner needs. A detailed report about CCA excerpted from the book Invisible Punishment states:

“A corporation’s fundamental obligation is to increase its stockholders’ profits, not to increase public safety, to improve prison conditions, or to rehabilitate prisoners. Low wages produce a less qualified, less experienced correctional workforce. And skimping on food, medical services, and prison programs is not only likely to increase prison management problems in the short run, it undermines the long-term goal of preparing prisoners for release back to the community.”[x]

By breaking the law, convicted criminals forfeit certain rights as US citizens; but is this ethical when it impedes on their ability to rejoin and contribute to society?

CCA’s detention centers, like many other penitentiaries, both private and public, fail to appropriately prepare inmates for life after prison. This often results in poverty and re-imprisonment that impose negative consequences upon society in the form of higher taxes. While wages vary across institutions and by job, state and federal prisons pay an average of 20 and 31 cents per hour, respectively. That means less than $2 or $3 for a full day’s work. CCA is no different, compensating workers as little as 17 cents per hour for a maximum of six hours a day. CCA’s Tennessee headquarters pays up to 50 cents per hour for its most skilled positions. It may seem unfair, but “because inmate workers are not considered ‘employees’ under the law, they have none of the protections that the word implies.”[xi] Regardless of the routine nature of their jobs – usually tasks like mopping and cleaning, food prep and service, filing papers, landscaping, or laundering uniforms and sheets – as well as the low compensation, most inmates want to work simply because it gives them something to do.

More than 2.7 million Americans currently have a mother or father in prison, about 1.7 million of which are under the age of 18. Without the financial support of a parent, families are struggling to make ends meet, meaning they cannot send money to their incarcerated relatives. Without credit in their commissary account, inmates are forced to work prison jobs. In turn, these jobs leave prisoners with little to no money to support their families on the outside. See a pattern? When prisoners are released, they often have less than a few hundred dollars to survive and thousands of dollars of debt owed to the government. Employers are typically disinclined to hire criminals, making it difficult for ex-convicts to find decent work. In many cases, this leads to poverty-stricken families, homelessness, illegal moneymaking activities, and repeat arrests. See another pattern?

CCA go away

CCA go away

Source: Flikr Commons

In addition to low worker compensation in detention centers, CCA’s reentry programs are ineffective at rehabilitating and preparing inmates for return to their communities. If instituted correctly, these types of services – including educational and vocational training, addiction treatment, faith-based programs, life skills courses, and health and wellness care – could greatly assist inmates in having a successful and comfortable transition back into society.[xii] However, mismanagement in CCA facilities creates an adverse environment for both prisoners and staff in which support programs are overshadowed by violence and poor quality of care. In turn, these programs do not receive enough funding to be truly useful and are not well utilized by inmates.

Examinations of the many operational weaknesses reported at CCA detention centers in recent years have found a multitude of similar deficiencies related to prison security and safety, living conditions, mistreatment of inmates by correctional officers, and violent conflicts. The Invisible Punishment chapter provides detail about this exploitation of detainee rights:

“Industry executives will tell you that prison management disasters are just isolated events, confined to a handful of “underperforming” facilities. But evidence is mounting that a number of key structural deficiencies – high staff turnover; defective classification and security procedures; inadequate program services – are found in many private prisons.”[xiii]

CCA and other private correctional organizations may be under fire lately, but their political lobbying strength prevents them from any negative repercussions. Is there any way to resolve these issues that yields less severe consequences for all stakeholders?

With nearly two billion in annual revenue, CCA certainly has the finances to invest in improving quality of life for its inmates. However, when managed like a business enterprise, CCA’s private facilities become a means to a profitable end. Private prisons need real public oversight, not the manipulated reinforcement of state governments who receive millions in lobbying support from corporations like CCA. The US must establish an industry-wide oversight board responsible for ensuring that state judiciaries deliver fair sentencing and enforcing standards of safety and service for privately owned detention facilities. Maintaining justice and integrity in private correctional institutions will yield better consequences for inmates by giving them proper care and preparation for life after prison as well as for society by keeping taxpayer dollars devoted to actual progress and supplying ex-convicts who are ready to contribute positively to their communities.


[i] Corrections Corporation of America. “Form 10-K 2013.” United States Securities and Exchange Commission. Web. 20 November, 2014.

[ii] Wagner, Peter, and Leah Sakala. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie.” Prison Policy Initiative. 12 Mar. 2014. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

[iii] Wagner, Peter. “Public and Private Prisons, 1999-2012.” Prison Policy Initiative. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2014. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

[iv] See footnote i.

[v] Friedman, Milton. “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits.” Property, Profit, and Justice: 222-27. Print.

[vi] Lava, Jesse, and Sarah Solon. “Why This Company Wants You in Prison.” The Nation. N.p., 5 Nov. 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.

[vii] Kant, Immanuel. “The Retributive Theory of Punishment.” The Philosophy of Law. Trans. W. Hastie. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1887. 144-46. Print.

[viii] “Consequentialism.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 3 Oct. 2014. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

[ix] Dolinko, David. “Retributivism, Consequentialism, and the Intrinsic Goodness of Punishment.” Law and Philosophy 16 (1997): 507-28. Springer. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

[x] Greene, Judith A. “Entrepreneurial Corrections: Incarceration As A Business Opportunity.” Invisible Punishment. New York: New, 2002. 1-16. Justice Strategies. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

[xi] Schwartzapfel, Beth. “Modern-Day Slavery in America’s Prison Workforce.” The American Prospect (2013). Web. 29 Oct. 2014.

[xii] “CCA.” Corrections Corporation of America. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.

[xiii] See footnote x.


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