Here is a story about big business and prisons and politics: Right now in Congress, there is a bill on the table called the First Step Act, which has received relatively wide bipartisan support, including from the president. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t think there’s time to pass the bill this year and has been dragging his feet.
At first blush, the First Step Act looks... fine. The bill is narrow in scope, but it would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some federal prisoners serving time for nonviolent drug convictions. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t affect a huge amount of people—about three percent of the 181,000 federal inmates, per CNBC—but it’s something. Trump, for his part, has been pushing hard for the bill.
Why, you might ask, is our notoriously cruel president pushing a bill that would actually let some people out of prison? According to the Tampa Bay Times, it’s for the most obvious reason—because it means some of his friends would get a bunch of money. The Times released a report today investigating why GEO Group and CoreCivic, two of the largest private prison companies in the U.S., have backed the bill. Both of the companies have seen huge growth in running post-prison rehabilitation facilities, where people often go after being released, the paper found (emphasis mine):
Federal business filings show GEO Group and CoreCivic have aggressively expanded in recent years into another sector of the criminal justice system: post-prison rehabilitation. It’s one of the fastest-growing pieces in the companies’ respective portfolios.
Last year, GEO Group bought one of the country’s largest providers of halfway houses, Community Education Centers, for $360 million. CoreCivic owns dozens of re-entry centers and recently told investors more acquisitions are on the horizon.
Should Congress approve the FIRST STEP Act, demand will rise for the very services these two companies now provide en masse. The bill authorizes a $375 million expansion of post-prison services for inmates transitioning back into society.
Huh. What a coincidence! Is there, by any chance, some connection between GEO Group and CoreCivic and the current president, who is working hard to pressure Congress to pass this bill? According to the Tampa Bay Times:
For their part, GEO Group and CoreCivic have closely aligned themselves with Trump. Each donated $250,000 to Trump’s inaugural fund. Last year GEO Group moved its annual leadership conference from a venue near its Boca Raton headquarters to a Trump-owned Miami-area golf resort, the Washington Post reported last year.
Oh. The Times does hedge a bit, saying nothing is a sure thing until it is. But it still seems like a fair assumption that, if these companies are backing the measure, it’s because they stand to benefit from it becoming law:
The FIRST STEP Act, if approved, will almost certainly create new business opportunities. The legislation encourages contracting with for-profit companies for post-prison services.
It’s unclear whether GEO or CoreCivic would be in line to provide those services. GEO’s federal contracts are currently limited to immigration services; the company mostly does business with states. But if Trump signs federal criminal justice reform, it could give Republican-run states like Florida cover to follow suit. This week, former Florida Senate President Joe Negron announced his new job as general counsel for Geo Group.
The bill is a horrible compromise for advocacy groups, many of whom are reluctantly supporting the bill. Would it lessen sentences for some deserving people in federal prisons? Yes. But it may also serve to line the pockets of the giant companies profiting off of our country’s broken carceral state.