The Troubling Stances on Private Prisons Among Many 2016 Candidates

March 6th 2015

In recent years, public and political opinion on criminal justice and prison reform has undergone something of a sea change. Emerging from the 1980s and 1990s––decades defined by harsh sentencing laws, dragnet policing, and the apex of the famously ineffective war on drugs––the public and even once-tough-on-crime advocates are taking a second look at the efficacy such hard-line policies supposedly wrought.

Arguably, one of the vilest outgrowths of the mad rush to lock up offenders of all stripes has been the private, for-profit prison sector, an industry whose many violations are frankly hard to keep up with. In the latest scandal, prisoners at one private Texas facility that holds mostly undocumented immigrants rioted recently over poor medical care, as well as things like overflowing sewage and overcrowding. In recent years, the same facility has been plagued with allegations of sexual and physical abuse, maggots in inmates’ food, and inmates’ wash loads mixed with mops and cleaning equipment.

As the likely 2016 presidential candidates continue to develop their stances on important issues, their records will be scrutinized. But we should pay special attention to their stances on the policies and ideas of past eras, and especially their vision of the path forward. We’ve told you about where the candidate-hopefuls stand on vaccines and marijuana, so here’s a rundown on their relationships with private prisons to keep in mind for 2016’s election.

Jeb Bush (R)

The latest offering from the Bush gene pool is gunning to be the shining moderate Republican these days, but his past suggests a hard-line stance on crime and a troubling penchant for privatization. The Daily Dot did some digging and found that even though as governor of Florida (1999-2007) he had a softened stance on privatizing state prisons, Bush’s Republican party received “hundreds of thousands of dollars” from private prison lobbyists during that time. This friendliness seems in line with a quote from an essay in Imprimis Bush penned back in 1995: “Our criminal justice system is also an obvious target for privatization,” he wrote.

Marco Rubio (R)

In 2013, Rubio made splashes when he played a leading role in pushing an immigration reform overhaul through the Senate. But now in a crucial role, observers should keep their eyes trained on the Florida Republican and especially his donors—namely, the Florida-based GEO Group, the second largest private prison company that locks up a substantial number of detained and incarcerated immigrants in its federally-contracted facilities. From 2009-2014, GEO gave Rubio some $125,000 in campaign contributions and Leadership PAC donations. “I don’t invest in other people’s agenda,” he said of the money, “they invest in my agenda.”

Rand Paul (R)

While the Sen. from Kentucky hasn’t necessarily spoken out specifically against private prisons, he does have a track record that puts him firmly in the criminal justice reform camp. Whether the two can go hand-in-hand is not always clear, but in November, Paul appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher and was asked if his party was “too cozy” with the private corporations that operate for-profit prisons. “I think it’s a fiscally conservative thing to want less people in prison, particularly non-violent people because it’s extraordinarily expensive.” Paul has also compared the war on drugs to the policies of the Jim Crow era.

Ted Cruz (R)

Texas Sen. Cruz has a complicated relationship with private prisons. For one, as a lawyer, Cruz once represented the developer Robert Mericle, who is notable for secretly giving two judges cash in exchange for sending juveniles to his private detention facilities––one of the most flagrant judicial corruption schemes in recent history known as the “kids for cash” scandal.

Second, Cruz has strong ties to the conservative “bill mill,” the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is famous for orchestrating lucrative contracts between states and privately operated prison companies. In fact, CCA and Geo Group—the two largest private prison companies—have been major corporate sponsors of ALEC. In 2013, when ALEC came under fire for its support of the “stand your ground” laws at the heart of the Trayvon Martin trial, Cruz, a former member himself, told reporters: “My advice to ALEC is very, very simple: stand your ground,” he said, touting his proud support of the organization.

Chris Christie (R)

Back in 2012, the New York Times reported a series of scathing articles on New Jersey’s hellish halfway houses run by Community Education Centers, a private company. As it turns out, Gov. Chris Christie, who described the company as “representing the very best of the human spirit,” has some troubling personal ties to CEC.

If it’s not enough that Christie is a champion of a company that runs what advocates have deemed one of the nation’s worst facilities in Texas, consider this: not only was he a lobbyist for the company in 2000 and 2001, but Bill Palatucci, former senior vice-president of CEC served as the chairman of Christie’s 2013 reelection campaign and was a member of his innermost circle of advisers. According to a piece in the National Review, Palatucci, “widely considered to be Christi’s closest counselor and most trusted confidant,” will play a “unique part in the Christie operation as gatekeeper, fundraiser, adviser, and friend” in the event of a run for the Oval Office.

Mike Huckabee (R)

Huckabee has made headlines over questionable interventions in prisoners’ sentences, and has voiced support of Eric Holder’s prison reform suggestions, but has yet to be tied in to any definitive stance or opinion on the issues surrounding private prisons.

Scott Walker (R)

Last month, the Nation published an article detailing the Wisconsin Governor’s role in increasing his state’s incarceration rates, and simultaneously propping up private prison companies to accommodate more inmates.

A hallmark of Walker’s tenure in his home state was “Truth-in-Sentencing” laws, which diminished parole opportunities and elongated sentences—legislation which Walker credited to ALEC. Walker was also involved in passing legislation that diverted inmates from overcrowded Wisconsin facilities to private prisons out of state. He has since denounced his earlier support for privatizing prisons, citing them as chiefly a public safety measure against overcrowding. He has failed to mention, though, his longstanding support of CCA, who was a corporate member of ALEC at the time of the Truth-in-Sentencing law writing, and whose executives have contributed thousands to Walker over the years.

Rick Perry (R)

The former Texas governor has been a surprising leader in prison reform efforts, but Perry nonetheless has deep ties to private prison companies, which famously operate numerous facilities in his state. In 2011, faced with a state deficit, he introduced proposals to privatize state prison healthcare among other measures that would benefit private prison interests. According to a Mother Jones report, that slew of proposals “coincided with an influx campaign contributions from private-prison executives and lobbyists” in 2010, amounting in tens of thousands of dollars from different companies. One GEO Group lobbyist reportedly gave $50,000 alone.

Hillary Clinton (D)

Though the private prison industry swelled around the time she was FLOTUS, Clinton has remained notably quiet on the subject in the run-up to formally announcing her candidacy. It was only last year, in what many called her “strongest comments yet” regarding criminal justice, that she addressed the “hard truths” of racial discrimination and the need for criminal justice reform. “[D]espite all the progress we’ve made together, African-Americans, and most particularly, African-American men, are still more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms,” she said at the Massachusetts conference for Women. Americans don’t break more laws than other nations, she said. “It is because we have allowed our criminal justice system to get out of balance. And I personally hope that these tragedies give us the opportunity to come together as a nation to find our balance again.” 

Her speech was a marked departure from a 1994 Annual Women in Policing address, when she declared that “we need more police, we need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders…we need more prisons to keep violent offenders for as long as it takes to keep them off the streets.”

Martin O’Malley (D)

The former Maryland governor built himself up as a tough-on-crime Baltimore mayor in the early aughts, but slowly issued more and more pardons as governor: 133 in his second term, up from 13 in his first. So far, he has not issued any stance on prison privatization. Governor O'Malley did preside over numerous prison scandals, however; most notably, a prison in Baltimore was overrun by gang members under his leadership.

Bernie Sanders (I)

A few days ago, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was in the news after he called on the White House to take executive action against certain tax breaks. Among them is a real estate loophole that allows business like private prisons to avoid corporate income taxes by claiming that they make money from rents. He has also voted in favor of investing in alternative sentencing as opposed to building more prisons. 

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