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Special report: Profiting from prison

Illustration of an inmate with a barcode on the back of his uniform
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A handful of American businesses have their fingers in almost every aspect of prison life, raking in billions of dollars every year for products and services — often with little oversight.

The big picture: Taxpayers, incarcerated people and their families spend around $85 billion a year on public and private correction facilities, bail and prison services, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

  • For-profit prison companies arose in response to the government's incapacity to handle the skyrocketing incarcerated population.
  • Now entrenched, they've become "one more hurdle" to changing the American system of mass incarceration, Lauren-Brooke Eisen of the Brennan Center for Justice told Axios.
  • These companies also have been known to cut corners — sometimes endangering people — in order to profit off of a system that disproportionately impacts the impoverished and marginalized.

Here's how they make money:

📞 Phone calls

About 80% of inmate calls go through Securus or GTL, both owned by private equity and known for sometimes charging outrageous fees ($8.20 for the first minute, in one case cited in a lawsuit).

  • People in prison also can be charged extra to open and close phone accounts, plus a surcharge to fund them in the first place.

🚑 Medical services

The largest private provider of medical services to prisons is believed to be Corizon Health, operating in 220 facilities in 17 states and owned by a New York City hedge fund.

  • Pricing: Corizon was paid $15.16 per incarcerated person per day for medical staffing in Arizona's prisons, before being accused of cheating state monitors and losing the account to another private company.

🍔 Food services

Two companies — Aramark and Trinity Services — provide meals in around 800 state and local facilities.

  • The Michigan Department of Corrections awarded a $145 million contract to Aramark, then fired the company for everything from "meal shortages to maggots in the kitchen," and replaced the company with Trinity at an annual cost of $158 million.
  • Problems persisted under Trinity, causing Michigan to abandon privatized food services in its kitchens.

🚗 Transportation services

Tennessee-based Prisoner Transportation Services is the largest provider of transportation for jails and prisons.

  • In 2016, PTS priced its services to Nevada at $1.05 per adult per mile, with higher rates for minors or those with mental disabilities. The minimum trip fee was $350.
  • In the past several years, 14 women claimed to have been sexually assaulted by transportation guards and at least 4 people have died while being transported in PTS vehicles, per the Marshall Project.

👕 Clothes, toiletries, etc.

Incarcerated people and their families spend an estimated $1.6 billion every year on commissary items such as toiletries, clothes and games.

  • While these items aren't generally marked-up, people in prison make very little money to afford what they need.
  • Keefe Group and Bob Barker Company are two companies that specialize in producing secure items as well as supplying cell furniture, guard equipment and supplies.

What’s next: With bipartisan attention focused on fighting high recidivism rates, for-profit prison companies are expanding their businesses beyond prison walls.

  • They’re running re-entry programs intended to prepare people in prison for life after prison, providing ankle bracelets and other monitoring devices for parole and probation, and operating immigrant detention spaces.
  • A spokesperson for CoreCivic — one of the largest for-profit prison companies — told Axios one of the few areas they lobby for is re-entry programs at the state and federal level.

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