Several industries have become notorious for the millions they spend on influencing legislation and getting friendly candidates into office: Big Oil, Big Pharma and the gun lobby among them. But one has managed to quickly build influence with comparatively little scrutiny: Private prisons. The two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States – GEO andCorrections Corporation of America – and their associates have funneled more than $10 million to candidates since 1989 and have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts. Meanwhile, these private companies have seen their revenue and market share soar. They now rake in a combined $3.3 billion in annual revenue and the private federal prison population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute. Private companies house nearly half of the nation’s immigrant detainees, compared to about 25 percent a decade ago, a Huffington Post report found. In total, there are now about 130 private prisons in the country with about 157,000 beds.
Marco Rubio is one of the best examples of the private prison industry’s growing political influence, a connection that deserves far more attention now that he’s officially launched a presidential bid. The U.S. senator has a history of close ties to the nation’s second-largest for-profit prison company, GEO Group, stretching back to his days as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. While Rubio was leading the House, GEO was awarded a state government contract for a $110 million prison soon after Rubio hired an economic consultant who had been a trustee for a GEO real estate trust. Over his career, Rubio has received nearly $40,000 in campaign donations from GEO, making him the Senate’s top career recipient of contributions from the company. (Rubio’s office did not respond to requests for comment.)
The Justice Policy Institute identified the private-prison industry’s three-pronged approach to increase profits through political influence: lobbying, direct campaign contributions, and building relationships and networks. On its website, CCA states that the company doesn’t lobby on policies that affect “the basis for or duration of an individual’s incarceration or detention.” Still, several reports have documented instances when private-prison companies have indirectly supported policies that put more Americans and immigrants behind bars – such as California’s three-strikes rule and Arizona’s highly controversial anti-illegal immigration law – by donating to politicians who support them, attending meetings with officials who back them, and lobbying for funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Showing just how important these policies are to the private prison industry, both GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America have warned shareholders that changes in these policies would hurt their bottom lines.