By Sarah Cronin
California made headlines last week when Governor Jerry Brown allocated a record $11.4 billion to the state’s corrections department in his May Revision to the budget, translating to $75,560 per individual — the highest per-inmate cost in the nation.
Media outlets ran amok with headlines comparing the costs of imprisonment to tuition at the country’s premier private university.
“That’s enough to cover the annual cost of attending Harvard University and still have plenty left over for pizza and beer,” quipped Don Thompson of the Associated Press.
Yet in consideration of decreasing prison populations and statewide ‘reforms,’ this five-figure sum is more alarming than amusing.
Since 2006, California’s inmate population has gone down by nearly a quarter, due in part to a Supreme Court mandate that found conditions in California’s notoriously overcrowded prisons to be ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ The inmate population further declined after California passed a proposition in 2014 that reduced sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders. Still, the annual corrections budget has continued to increase, with current costs now double what they were in 2005.
But the very same budget report that allocates $11.3 billion to corrections also predicts an additional population decrease of 11,500 inmates over the next four years.
So what gives?
Part of the answer, at least, comes down to prison unions.
“It’s an example of how powerful public-sector unions keep the state from getting spending under control, even when the need for such spending plummets,” wrote Steven Greenhut in an op-ed for the California Policy Center.
The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) is one of the most powerful public sector unions in the state. In an article shared on the Prison Activist Resource Center, writer Tim Kowell tracked CCPOA’s massive legacy of influence in a timeline spanning over 50 years.
This includes a $2 million dollar campaign contribution that the CCPOA made to Brown’s gubernatorial bid in 2010, reportedly by funneling the money into independent campaign expenditures. This, CalWatch.org says, made Brown “Prisoner of the Guards Union.”
If the union has Brown in a bind, it could explain why correctional officers in California are the second-highest paid in the nation (the first is New Jersey), earning an average of $70,020/year.
“That’s more than the average salary of an assistant professor with a PhD at the University of California,” Kowell noted.
It’s no wonder, then, that incarceration costs are beginning to resemble the tuition fees of a top-tier university.
Further, as the Associated Press reported, California Correctional Peace Officers Association are currently negotiating the details of a contract that would cost taxpayers more than $1 billion over the next three years.
Nichol Gomez, spokeswoman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association Union, says the extra funds are needed for special programming.
“Vocational, academic, mental health and medical programs are not cheap, but we’re doing our best to provide programs that give people the best chance to succeed once released,” she said in an interview with the Associated Press.
California Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer, who also spoke with the AP, backed Gomez’s claims, attributing the increasing cost to “unique pressures,” such as prison healthcare and remote prisons.
What Palmer and Gomez are describing is consistent with a trend in recent years that has states investing more money in reform and rehabilitation than in prisons themselves. This has lead to the corporate privatization of these social services in what is now being called the “treatment-industrial complex.”
The treatment-industrial complex is similar in theory to the well-known prison-industrial complex. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has explained that “the financial incentive for private prison corporations is to keep people in custody or under some form of supervision for as long as possible at the highest per diem rate possible in order to maximize profits.“
The difference between the two is that instead of privatized carceral facilities, the treatment-industrial complex leads to outsourced social services, including privatized treatment centers and halfway houses.
The main players in the treatment-industrial complex are the very same ones involved in the for-profit prison industry. They are corporations like GEO Group, the second-largest private correctional facilities provider in the U.S. In recent years, they have strategically shifted their focus toward prison alternatives.
As the AFSC reports:
In 2010, GEO Group acquired BI Incorporated, which makes electronic monitoring products, including GPS ankle bracelet monitors, voice verification technology, and alcohol monitors for individuals on home confinement. The company boasts of its newly reorganized ‘Community Services’ unit, which operates halfway houses, day reporting centers, and juvenile detention facilities. This segment represented 20% of GEO Group’s operations in 2012.
According to their website, Geo Group owns 101 ‘Residential Reentry” “Day Reporting” facilities nationwide. California alone houses 23 of these sites, the most of any state.
As Politico reported last March, California is one of 25 states that contracts some or all of their correctional health care to private companies.
In last year’s Budget Act, California put aside $25 million for a community-based transitional housing program that “encourages cities and counties to support transitional housing that provides treatment and reentry programming to offenders released from the criminal justice system, and to any other persons who the applicant city or county believes may benefit.”
Notably, Brown’s May revision to the program asserts that “there is no limit on the amount the city or county may provide the facility operator.”
For corporations like Geo Group, this means that ‘rehabilitation’ is turning out to be a lucrative business.
As Michelle Chen of The Nation writes:
On principle, reducing incarceration is necessary and just. But some activists fear private-sector solutions might pervert prison reform into a neoliberal variation of convict leasing, in which industry and state collude to ‘redeem” society’s undesirables.’
In terms of the costs to taxpayers, criminal justice analyst Drew Soderborg told the Associated Press that “[r]eal savings won’t come unless the inmate population drops so low that the state can start closing prisons.”
Yet with so many vested interests involved in keeping correctional facilities open, that reality seems far-fetched. Even if prisons were to be shut down, the treatment-industrial complex indicates that the next iteration of for-profit prison institutions is already here, and they are already taking our money.