Private Prison Quotas Drive Mass Incarceration and Deter Reform, Study Finds

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Most of the private prison contracts in America require states to keep at least 90% of prison beds filled or pay a penalty to private, for-profit corporations.

Advocacy group In the Public Interest obtained and analyzed 62 contracts between states and local jurisdictions and private prison companies that govern the operation of 77 county and state-level facilities. Sixty-five percent contained occupancy requirements between 80 and 100%, with many around 90%. Arizona (100%), Louisiana (96%), Oklahoma (98%), and Virginia (95%) had the highest quotas.

"These contract clauses incentivize keeping prison beds filled," wrote the study's authors, "which runs counter to many states’ public policy goals of reducing the prison population and increasing efforts for inmate rehabilitation." Regardless of crime rates and public safety needs, these contracts require jurisdictions to maintain current levels of mass incarceration or pay millions of dollars for unused beds.

In Colorado alone, where crime has dropped by a third in the past decade, quotas covering three private prisons have cost taxpayers $2 million.

Arizona officials ended up paying $3 million for empty beds because the state stopped sending new inmates to a "dysfunctional" for-profit prison after three inmates escaped in 2010.

The major private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) (the largest for-profit private prison company in the country), GEO Group, and Management and Training Corporation (MTC), spend millions of dollars to ensure harsh criminal laws and elect policymakers that support the industry's agenda; CCA alone spent $17.4 million in lobbying from 2002 through 2012.

Bed guarantee contract provisions are an even more direct way for private prison companies to protect their bottom line. CCA, GEO Group, and MTC all have quotas in their contracts. The industry claims these provisions save states money, but quotas actually lock in inflated rates after the contract is signed.