Green is the old black: California looks to phase out private prison partnerships as Trump administration doubles down

Students lobby Sacramento State to divest from businesses that benefit from for-profit incarceration

Sac State student Aya Khalifeh wants her university to divest its ties to private prisons.

Sac State student Aya Khalifeh wants her university to divest its ties to private prisons.

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

A bill to end California’s reliance on for-profit prisons jumped a major hurdle last week, passing the Assembly Public Safety Committee just days before students demanded that Sacramento State University divest its financial ties to those very corporations.

According to Assemblyman Rob Bonta, California is still contracting to house 6,000 state inmates inside private prisons.

“I don’t agree with this philosophy,” Bonta told fellow lawmakers on April 4. “These companies have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to maximize profits around incarceration.”

To redress this, the East Bay Democrat authored Assembly Bill 1320, which would halt all new contracts between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the private prison industry by 2018, as well as phase out all inmates in private custody by 2028. AB 1320 passed unanimously through the public safety committee. It will next be heard by the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which could move it to a final vote in the state house. It will also need Senate approval and the governor’s signature.

Last summer, the Obama administration announced plans to phase out federal private prison contracts. That tide shifted with the election of Donald Trump and the confirmation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In February, Sessions officially rescinded the Obama plan, making Bonta’s bill yet another symbol of California parting ways with the federal agenda.

Bonta argues there’s a clear monetary incentive for private prisons to shortchange rehabilitation efforts, as more victims of crime—and incoming convicts—equal a higher earning trajectory.

Testifying April 4, a representative from Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, a private prison company housing many California inmates, reminded committee members why CCA’s services were first called upon: In 2007, a panel of federal judges ruled that, due to overcrowding and inmate deaths, the state had to reduce its prison population by 40,000 inmates.

“We were simply part of that process and we’re proud of that,” CCA lobbyist John Latimer said at the hearing. Though CCA is taking no position on the bill, Latimer defended the company’s rehabilitative efforts. Referring to how far California’s prison population has dropped since realignment, which shifted thousands of low-level offenders to county jails, and the passage of Proposition 47, which lowered some felonies to misdemeanors, Latimer added, “This process is already happening on its own, organically.”

According to a January 2016 report from CDCR, more than 23 percent of that initial reduction of 40,000 inmates was achieved by shipping bodies to private prisons.

While the number of inmates in private custody is falling, it’s not fast enough for critics. In recent years, CCA and rival prison corporations GEO Group and G4S have faced mounting lawsuits alleging that low-wage correctional officers, underfunded background checks and various cost-cutting measures led to inmate abuses—all while profits soared. CCA reported its total revenue for 2015 at $1.7 billion, while GEO Group reported profits of $1.8 billion. G4S, which also owns a global security business that contracts with Sacramento Regional Transit, has contracts worth more than $2 billion annually.

Well before California lawmakers took action, college students were pressuring their educational institutions to stop subsidizing for-profit incarceration.

In April 2015, students pressured Columbia University to divest its shares in G4S and CCA. Seven months later, students convinced the board of regents of the University of California to divest $30 million from those companies, along with shares in GEO Group. Now, some Sacramento students think it’s time for California State University to take a stand.

On April 6, Abraham Mendoza III, vice president of academic affairs for Sacramento State’s Associated Students Inc., appeared in front of a campus audience to discuss his new resolution for CSUS to divest from Wells Fargo, specifically because of the bank’s key investments in private prison companies. Mendoza’s resolution also calls for CSUS to divest from JP Morgan Chase over links to the Dakota Access Pipeline and several companies profiting off Israeli occupation of the West Bank in Palestine. Mendoza’s resolution characterizes all these financial arrangements that CSUS has as being tainted with human rights abuses.

Aya Khalifeh, president of Students for Justice in Palestine, told SN&R that her group is in full support of the resolution, and not just because of its mission around Gaza. “We don’t agree with what these private prison companies are doing,” Khalifeh said. “We’re completely aware of the grave issues going on, and the role these corporations play in mass incarceration.”

The event’s keynote speaker, Ahmad Saadaldin of Peace House, said it’s vital for the public to educate itself on the untold story of the private prison industry, particularly how the companies used the American Legislative Exchange Council to financially support politicians who championed so-called “tough on crime” bills, driving up both the number of incarcerated Americans and private prison contracts at the same time. The connections between ALEC and the private prison industry were first uncovered by investigative reporters at Reuters, the Palm Beach Post and The New Orleans Times-Picayune. Last year, it was re-emphasized in the documentary 13th, which also stresses the disproportionate number of black and brown men in American prisons.

“Consider the very concept: You’re in business to jail people,” Saadaldin said. “It’s all been broken down and proven now that these companies lobbied Congress to target at-risk minorities.”