The prison industry in the United States has grown so large that there are no less than seven professional associations for people who work at prisons and jails. The industry conferences held by these associations provide a perfect venue for private corrections companies to influence government officials with little public oversight, according to a recent report by the watchdog group In The Public Interest (ITPI).
The biggest names in the prison business spend millions of dollars sponsoring these conferences and wooing prison officials with free massages, awards ceremonies, luxury dinner cruises and plenty of corporate schwag. Over the past week, one of the most prominent associations, the American Correctional Association (ACA), held its summer conference in Indianapolis, where major sponsors included private prison companies Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), GEO Group and food services giant Aramark.
The ACA boasts that its "Congress of Corrections" offers "multiple ways to network with industry professionals, find a mentor, get a sneak peek at emerging technology, and hone your leadership skills." At last summer's ACA conference, CCA sent nearly 70 of its own employees, according to ITPI.
Private prison firms and the private companies that provide services such as commissary and health care in prisons are notorious for cutting corners to maximize profits at the expense of health and safety. Aramark was recently cited for causing food shortages and serving food contaminated with maggots to prisoners in Michigan. CCA and GEO Group have been plagued by scandals at their privately run facilities across the United States, and both companies advocate for policies and contract provisions such as "bed quotas" or "lockup quotas" that increase profits but undermine efforts to reduce the nation's exploding prison population and improve conditions.
At industry conferences, however, these companies take the form of cheerful vendors and sponsors of luncheons and seminars where industry representatives can meet in person with government officials. At the National Sheriffs' Association conference, for example, companies that pay between $10,000 and $30,000 in sponsorship fees can present one-hour seminars to attendees.
"The fact that correction companies receive most, if not all, of their funding from government entities is different from many other types of industries that are out there," said Benjamin Davis, an ITPI analyst and author of the report. "So, this whole source of revenue, combined with companies' poor track records, makes the examination of the corrections associations and conferences especially important."
Members of corrections associations often make outsourcing decisions at the facilities where they work, so industry conferences provide private contractors with pay-to-play access to the officials who carry the prison system's pocketbooks on behalf of taxpayers.
About 56 percent of those surveyed at ACA's 2015 winter conference, which typically attracts wardens, deputy wardens and health-care workers, said they were "final decision makers" at their facilities, according to the report. About 90 percent of participants at the American Jail Association's conferences can either "purchase or recommend purchases" for their facilities. Both associations provide sponsors with lists of attendees before and after the conferences, allowing the companies to "target certain corrections officials and follow up."
"The public officials that are at these conferences, they have a lot of power in their facilities or within the Department of Corrections or whatever public entity they come from," Davis said.
In 2014, private sponsors, vendors and corporate partners contributed $3 million to the five largest professional corrections associations in the United States. This money buys access to prison officials, allowing the companies to build business relationships with little public oversight.
The private prison industry has rapidly expanded in recent decades as the proportion of incarcerated people quadrupled under the failed "tough on crime" and drug war policies of the 1980s and 1990s, according to the report. Lawmakers are beginning to roll back policies such as mandatory minimum sentencing that have given the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world. However, private prison companies aren't going anywhere: They continue to spend millions of dollars on campaign donations and lobbying efforts to influence criminal legal policy and ensure that their profits continue to grow.
State and federal disclosure laws allow the public to monitor these behind-the-scenes efforts, but these laws do not apply to corrections associations, which are considered nonprofit groups. ITPI points to public records showing that the private prison industry contributed $4.7 million to political campaigns in 2013 and 2014, with the GEO Group and CCA ranking as top contributors. Major corrections associations, however, do not publish reports on their relations with private companies, so there is little public oversight of how they facilitate relationships between prison contractors and public officials.
Davis noted that there is nothing technically illegal about the associations and their conferences, but they can "open the door" to corruption.
Consider Chris Epps, the former head of the Mississippi state prison system and a former ACA president, who pled guilty in February to corruption charges. Epps was caught taking nearly $1 million in bribes in return for securing $1 billion in private prison contracts for firms connected to Cecil McCrory, a onetime state lawmaker who also pled guilty to money laundering and conspiracy.
"Really, the thing we need here is transparency," Davis said.