Photo illustration by AP, Jorge Rivas/Fusion

Senator Bernie Sanders recently saw an infographic that has renewed his call to pass legislation banning private prisons in the United States.

Sanders “urged action” after learning that the two largest private prison operators in the U.S. made a combined $361 million in profits last year, according to a statement released by the senator’s office.

“We cannot fix our criminal justice system if corporations are allowed to profit from mass incarceration,” Sanders said in the statement. “Companies should not be allowed to make a profit by building more jails and keeping more Americans behind bars.”

Sanders made the comments after learning Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison operator, made an average $3,356 in profit per prisoner last year. GEO Group, the country’s second largest private prison operator, made an average of $2,135 in profit per prisoner, according to new data released by In the Public Interest, a D.C.-based think tank that considers best practices in public-private deals. The group says it wants to call attention to tax dollars that go to private prisons instead of “rehabilitation for those in the system and [to] keep some people out of the system in the first place.”

In the Public Interest


The think tank reached its estimates by reviewing data in annual reports submitted to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission by GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). In the Public Interest divided both companies’ earnings by the number of people in the private prison facilities to come up with the estimates listed on the infographic.

CCA's most recent spike in profits in 2015 was “primarily attributable” to a contract at the South Texas Family Residential Center that generated approximately $71.6 million in revenue during the fourth quarter of 2015, according to a recent earnings call. The facility can hold up to 2,400 women and children—mostly migrant mothers and children fleeing violence and seeking asylum in the United States.



“For-profit companies shouldn't be profiting off of our criminal justice system, whether it's at a prison or at a residential reentry center,” said Benjamin Davis, a researcher and policy analyst for In the Public Interest.

“We calculated the profits per prisoner as a way to contextualize for the audience the hundreds of millions of dollars in profits GEO Group (and CCA) make. $140 million in annual profits is hard to grasp. $2,100 in profits per prisoner is easier to grasp,” said Davis.

The GEO Group challenged the findings in the infographic and called it an attack.


“These attacks rely on politically motivated sources to advance the inaccurate notion that private prisons are somehow unaccountable,” read a statement provided to Fusion.

Both GEO Group and CCA have met standards set by nationally recognized correctional accreditation agencies.


The GEO Group spokesperson said the company was fully accountable to taxpayers and government contracts and that it provided “high quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments.”

“Political attacks on private prisons ignore the ways our industry and our company have, for more than three decades, worked to deliver education and rehabilitation programs and post-release, reentry services to thousands of offenders, so they can reintegrate successfully into society,” the statement from GEO Group continued.

GEO Group also profits from a number of services they call a “continuum of care” outside prisons, including day reporting programs and electronic monitoring services, such as ankle bracelets that can track an individual’s location.


CCA did not respond to Fusion’s requests for comment.

The use of private prisons has become a campaign issue for both Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Both have said they would eliminate private prisons if elected president.

According to the Clinton campaign website, “Hillary believes we should move away from contracting out this core responsibility of the federal government to private corporations, and from creating private industry incentives that may contribute—or have the appearance of contributing—to over-incarceration.”


Sanders last year also introduced The Justice Is Not for Sale Act, which bars the federal government from contracting with private companies beginning two years after the bill is passed. The legislation would also eliminate a congressional mandate that requires Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) maintain a level of 34,000 detention beds available for immigration detainees.

The number of adult prisoners housed in private prisons has jumped approximately 1,600% since 1990, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.


The use of private prisons hit a peak in 2012, when 137,200 prisoners, or almost 9% of the total U.S. prison population, was housed in private facilities. Today, the share of the prison population in private facilities has lowered a bit. At the end of 2014 there were an estimated 1,561,500 prisoners in state and federal correctional facilities, 8.4% of whom were in private prisons, according to data provided by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Private prison corporations, however, have increased their share of the immigrant detention industry. Nine of the ten largest detention centers—which detain immigrants who have entered the country without authorization—are run by private prisons. Immigrants who are caught illegally crossing in to the U.S. more than once are almost always held in private prisons facilities.

An estimated 62% of all immigration detention beds managed by ICE are operated by for-profit prison corporations, up from 49% in 2009, according to federal documents analyzed by Grassroots Leadership, a group whose mission it is end for-profit incarceration.


People of color may be more likely to serve their time in private prisons than in public facilities, according to an analysis of public records by Christopher Petrella, a doctoral candidate in African American Studies at UC Berkeley. Petrella studied minimum and medium security private prisons in nine states and found that people of color are overrepresented in private facilities relative to their public counterparts in each of the nine states examined.

People of color comprise 89% of those currently housed in CCA-owned and -operated facilities housing California state prisoners, Petrella found. They comprised 76% of those being detained in California public facilities, according to Petrella, who is also a lecturer at Bates College in Maine.


“Instead of investing in jails and incarceration, our focus should be on providing jobs and education to keep people out of jail and on ensuring prisoners have the resources they need to get back on their feet when they get out,” Sanders said after seeing the infographic.